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, Paul 


Author of J foment Time*. • and A History of the .Jews 

The Quest for God 

A Personal Pilgrimage 

Paul Johnson 

HarperCollins e-books 

This book is dedicated to 
my philosophy tutor, Dr Sophie Botros 

my parish priest, Father Michael Hollings 



Why I am writing this book 1 


The God who would not die 6 


Is there an alternative to God? 18 


What is God, then? 34 


He, she or it: divinity, gender and sex 47 


Why evil exists-and why we can distinguish it from good 61 


The God of beauty 70 


God's world-or ours? 82 


The problematical uniqueness of mankind 94 


The church, dogma, authority, order and liturgy 105 


Separate brethren, Jews and Christians 123 


The four last things: death 131 


Dies Irae: the Day of Wrath 



Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? 154 


The timeless world waiting 173 


Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists 184 

Appendix: Prayers for Various Occasions 203 

Index 209 

About the Author 

Other Books by Paul Johnson 



About the Publisher 


Why I am writing this book 

Why am I writing this book? The answer is: partly to help myself, partly 
to help other people. The existence or non-existence of God is the most 
important question we humans are ever called to answer. If God does 
exist, and if in consequence we are called to another life when this one 
ends, a momentous set of consequences follows, which should affect 
every day, every moment almost, of our earthly existence. Our life then 
becomes a mere preparation for eternity and must be conducted 
throughout with our future in view. If, on the other hand, God does 
not exist, another momentous set of consequences follows. This life 
then becomes the only one we have, we have no duties or obligations 
except to ourselves, and we need weigh no other considerations except 
our own interests and pleasures. There are no commands to follow ex- 
cept what society imposes upon us, and even these we may evade if 
we can get away with it. In a Godless world, there is no obvious basis 
for altruism of any kind, moral anarchy takes over and the rule of the 
self prevails. 

Yet all of us know that the logic of Godlessness would not prevail in 
our own case. Even if we have no belief whatever in a God, even if we 
are certain no afterlife will follow and that there is no eternal system 
of rewards and punishments to regulate our behaviour in the world, 
we know that we are incapable of pursuing a purely selfish existence. 
Try as we will, total self-regard, let alone total wickedness, is beyond 
us. Even the worst of us has redeeming qualities, often positive virtues. 
Selfishness may be our policy, the pursuit of pleasure our sole aim, but 
altruism keeps creeping in. It is as though we are morally incapable of 
conducting our lives without some element of morality. 

That human beings have a certain propensity to evil, which 

2 / The Quest for God 

Christians call Original Sin, is obvious to all, and explains much of the 
misery of the world. But that we also have a propensity to good is pretty 
clear too. It is the existence of these competing instincts-or whatever 
they are-struggling for paramountcy in the same individual at any one 
time, which makes men and women so endlessly fascinating, so elusive 
of final judgments, so worthy of study. We are not so virtuous as the 
angels, or so beautiful or powerful, but we are much more interesting. 

The fact that we have the altruistic urge-as well as the evil one-is the 
great safeguard of the well-meaning atheists. The propensity to do 
good, they argue, makes God and his commandments, his rewards and 
punishments, unnecessary. Men and women pursue righteousness for 
its own sake. The human race is morally autonomous and, properly led 
and instructed, will strive for perfectibility or at least steady improve- 
ment, without any intervention of the supernatural. We want to be 
good, and the only problem, in a Godless world, is how to make that 
altruistic will prevail over the temptations of the self and the cravings 
of the flesh. And that problem can be solved by the right kind of moral 

Yet it is a fact that those who hold such views have never been nu- 
merous. Atheism as a positive set of beliefs, including a code of moral 
behaviour, has failed to flourish. It may be that fewer and fewer people 
in Western countries practise their religion, but the number of those 
prepared to state their disbelief in God openly and specifically is minute. 
Except to a small minority-probably no greater today than it was in the 
time of Percy Bysshe Shelley, expelled from Oxford University for 
atheism-denial of God has no human appeal. We shrink from it. The 
vast majority are, and probably always will be, believers or agnostics- 
and agnosticism has every degree of doubt and bewilderment, ranging 
from near-belief to total confusion. 

I suspect the reason why atheism has so little attraction is precisely 
our awareness of a desire in ourselves to do good. All of us have a 
conscience, whatever we may call it. We know we have this thing inside 
us, this nagging inner voice which tells us not to be so selfish or to help 
those in need or to prefer right to wrong. We may suppress it, but it is 
made of psychic indiarubber and springs back, however unwanted or 
unheeded, to wag a finger at 

Why I am writing this book / 3 

us. The conscience can never quite be killed. And because it exists and 
we know it exists, we are periodically driven to ponder-or half-ponder- 
the question: how did it get there? Who put it there? Darwinism may 
be everywhere the received wisdom, and the process of Natural Selec- 
tion maybe unthinkingly accepted as scientific truth. But these scientific 
explanations cannot tell us why humanity became uniquely self-con- 
scious. Nor can they explain why an ineradicable part of that self-con- 
sciousness is, precisely, our conscience, this moral mentor, instructor 
and castigator, whose sinewy limbs constantly seek to restrain our an- 
imal urges, just as the Old Man of the Sea wrapped his legs tightly 
round the neck of Sinbad the Sailor. The agnostic cannot shake off 
conscience as easily as he shakes off positive belief in God, and because 
conscience remains, there is always in the background of the agnostic's 
mind the suspicion that some agency put it there. What other explana- 
tion can there be? So the shadow of God is never quite dispelled. 

There is another force, in addition to conscience, which militates 
against atheism in the human mind. That force is fear. The Bible says, 
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.' One might add, 'The 
fear of the unknown is the beginning of belief.' For an intellectually 
self-confident man or woman, with a healthy body and reasonably 
contented mind, and a job and a sufficient income, atheism is a possible 
philosophy. But when misfortunes, pain and sorrows arrive, bringing 
with them fear, and fear not just of present ills but of future, unknown 
ones to come, then atheism is not enough. A human spirit must indeed 
be resolute to face adversity utterly alone. In chronic pain and in distress 
without apparent end, even the confirmed atheist longs for a God, and 
placed thus in extremis the agnostic is an agnostic no more. Fear and 
pain drive out human self-confidence, and faith returns to fill the vacu- 
um thus left. In hospices for the dying, in the emergency wards of 
hospitals, in operating theatres, among soldiers on the eve of battle, or 
sailors in a storm or travellers in a stricken aircraft or ship, there are 
few atheists and, for the moment at least, no agnostics. The more stricken 
or terrified the human being is, the more God is needed-and called for. 
Doubts may return later but, at this moment of terror, fear and belief 
walk hand in hand. 

What, then, is this God who places a conscience in our minds 

4 / The Quest for God 

and whose existence-doubted at most other times-comes to our rescue 
when we are scared? There have been human beings of a sort for per- 
haps 250,000 years, and during this time the vast majority of them have 
believed in God or gods. Most of that time their beliefs have been aston- 
ishingly specific and detailed, and the gods which have regulated their 
lives have been clearly portrayed divinities, with biographies, known 
strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, favourites and enemies. 
Even with the advent of monotheism, and an omnipotent God who, 
almost by definition, is less knowable than the pagan pantheons, the 
scriptures of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths provide a great 
mass of information about what God does, says and requires. 

Yet, in the world today, where our knowledge of the material world 
increases faster than we can take it in, our ignorance of God also tends 
to increase. We are less sure about what God is, or what he means to 
us, than our parents were, just as they were less clear and confident 
about God than their parents. If I ask someone today, 'Do you believe 
in God?', the answer is likely to be 'Well, yes, I do in a way, I suppose.' 
But if I press him or her further and ask, 'What exactly do you mean 
by God?', the answer is less forthcoming. 'That is a difficult question', 
they reply, or 'These are deep waters. Dr Watson.' Moderns are not 
used to questioning themselves about God. Often, they do not wish to 
inquire-the answers might be disquieting-or, if they are not afraid of 
the answers, they do not know how to put the questions. These are no- 
go areas to the modern mind, unexplored territory. Many say to them- 
selves-or rather, they do not exactly say so, but it goes unsaid-'Let 
sleeping gods lie.' 

But God does not sleep, and will not lie, and sooner or later these 
questions have to be faced and answered. Better, perhaps, to face and 
answer them now, than on our bed of sickness, or our deathbeds. For 
a long time I have been thinking about conducting, on my own behalf, 
a systematic inquiry into what I understand by God, and what that 
understanding and its consequences mean in my life and future hopes. 
I have been a Christian-a Roman Catholic-since birth. From earliest 
childhood I have been well instructed in my faith. My parents and my 
elder sisters were devoted Catholics and gave me the best possible 
family grounding in my religion, and their efforts were supplemented 
by the Sisters 

Why I am writing this book / 5 

of St Dominic, at my infant school, by the Christian Brothers, at my 
preparatory school, and by the Jesuits, at my public school. Since then 
I have written a history of Christianity and a history of the Jews, a study 
of ancient Palestine, biographies of two modern popes, and countless 
articles dealing with matters of faith and religion. I have been in Rome 
for every papal conclave since the war, and for the Second Vatican 
Council, and I have visited shrines and centres of religious life and 
thought all over the world. Yet there are many lacunae in my knowledge 
and many unresolved doubts, many questions I have failed to answer 
or have not sought to examine earnestly enough. For one who has had 
the best of religious educations, I am disturbingly ignorant and unin- 
structed, insufficiently curious and persistent in inquiry. I have many 
things to think about and a lot to learn. 

Hence I have begun this book, to resolve many doubts in my own 
mind, to clarify my thoughts and to try to define what God means to 
me and my life. I write it in the expectation that, by straightening out 
my own beliefs, it may help others to straighten out theirs. It is in no 
sense a manual of religious instruction. Still less is it an attempt to 
proselytise. It is a meditation, or a series of meditations, on religious 
subjects, by one who has imperfect knowledge and often ill-defined 
beliefs, but who has an absolutely genuine anxiety to explore the truth 
and convey it. I trust it will arouse interest and discussion, disagreement 
and responses, and thereby intensify debate about the questions which 
matter more than any others. And, in its own way, I pray it will provide 
a degree of comfort for those, like me, who wish to move from obscurity 
to daylight, from doubt to certitude, from infidelity to faith-or from 
faith to greater faith-and from apprehension, even despair, to hope. 


The God who would not die 

Sometimes, even more remarkable than historical events are historical 
non-events. What matters in history is not always what does happen, 
but what obstinately fails to happen. The twentieth century is a case in 
point. Immense events took place during it, events to make us marvel- 
and shudder. But from one perspective-the perspective of human spir- 
ituality-the most extraordinary thing about the twentieth century was 
the failure of God to die. The collapse of mass religious belief, especially 
among the educated and prosperous, had been widely and confidently 
predicted. It did not take place. Somehow, God survived, flourished 
even. At the end of the twentieth century, the idea of a personal, living 
God is as lively and real as ever, in the minds and hearts of countless 
millions of men and women throughout our planet. 

This curious non-event is worth examining in a little detail. To begin 
with, we have to appreciate that belief in God has always been strong 
in the human breast. Until quite modern times, it is impossible to point 
to any society anywhere, however primitive or advanced, where belief 
in a god or gods-of some kind-was not general, and as a rule universal. 
Atheism was remarkably late in making its appearance in human soci- 
eties. There was, to be sure, talk of atheists in the sixteenth century. Sir 
Walter Ralegh and his circle of scientific friends, such as Dr John Dee, 
were accused of atheism in the 1580s. But, closely investigated, their 
ideas turn out to be no more than a repudiation of the Christian Trinity. 
Ralegh certainly believed in a divine providence: his History of the World, 
indeed, is impregnated with the notion of a benign, determining hand 
in history. The world view of Sir Francis Bacon, another man suspected 
of atheism, turns out to be similar. 

The God who zvould not die / 7 

It is a remarkable fact that the first well-known European figure who 
not only proclaimed himself a genuine atheist in life, but died an atheist, 
was David Hume, the great Scottish historian and philosopher. Hume's 
death in 1776, as an unrepentant atheist, aroused awed comment on 
both sides of the Atlantic. Benjamin Franklin thought it a portent-rightly 
so. Dr Samuel Johnson could not be convinced of the seriousness of 
Hume's atheism-'He lies. Sir', he told Boswell. Johnson found it difficult 
to believe the assurance of Boswell, who had visited Hume on his 
deathbed, that the philosopher felt no pain at the thought of complete 
annihilation, a descent into nothingness. 

It was not so. Sir. He had a vanity in being thought easy. It is more 
probable that he should assume an appearance of ease, than that so 
very improbable a thing should be, as a man not afraid of going (as, 
in spite of his delusive theory, he cannot be sure but he may go) into 
an unknown state, and not being uneasy at leaving all he knew. And 
you are to consider, that upon his own principle of annihilation he 
had no motive to speak the truth. 

The death of the first confirmed atheist, then, was so remarkable as 
to seem almost incredible. But in the quarter-century that followed, 
events moved fast. Five years after Hume died, Immanuel Kant pub- 
lished his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he seemed to deal a mortal 
blow to traditional metaphysics. Metaphysics, as taught in the schools 
for the best part of a millennium, had been the means by which most 
Christian intellectuals, especially the clergy, had demonstrated belief 
in God to be a reasonable proposition, as well as an emotional convic- 
tion. Even more destructive of belief, especially among educated people, 
was the work of Friedrich Hegel. Hegel was not exactly a non-believer 
himself, though he certainly came close to it in his revolutionary youth. 
In his maturity, when he was Professor of Philosophy at Berlin Univer- 
sity, and conscious of the beginnings of the nineteenth-century religious 
revival which swept through Europe in the years after 1815, he found 
it convenient to assert his religious orthodoxy. But his work as a whole 
pointed in quite a different direction. Hegel presented the entire history 
of humanity as an inexorable progression from lower to higher forms, 
from ignorance to knowledge, from unreason to reason. In this process 
religion had its 

8 / The Quest for God 

place: an important place, indeed, because in its higher manifestations, 
such as monotheism and then Christianity, it established and then dis- 
seminated important aspects of knowledge. But it was no more than 
part of the continuing process and, having fulfilled its role, would yield 
to higher forms of human consciousness. 

The assumptions behind Hegel's philosophy took a tremendous hold 
on the Western mind. They penetrated every aspect of intellectual life, 
from the physical sciences to the burgeoning social sciences such as 
philology, economics, sociology and history, and even to biblical studies. 
Almost every radical thinker in the nineteenth century was a Hegelian 
of sorts. Marxism, for instance, would have been inconceivable without 
Hegel's notion of progression. In economic terms, Marx presented hu- 
man progress as an advance from primitive to feudal to bourgeois to 
Communist societies. Just as pagan forms of belief were projections of 
the way in which the means of production were organised in tribal 
communities, so Christianity was a function of capitalism. When capit- 
alism disappeared, as it soon would, Christianity-and Judaism, its fount 
of origin-would disappear too. The very notion of a personal God would 
vanish from the minds of men and women, except as a historical curi- 
osity, like the weird crocodile-and dog-gods of ancient Egypt. 

The notion that belief in God was a mere phase in human develop- 
ment was reinforced by the hammer-blows of scientific discovery. First 
came the total recasting of the world's geology, in the 1820s and 1830s. 
The traditional chronology and historicity of the Old Testament were 
fatally undermined, or so it seemed. This demolition of the Book of 
Genesis was a more potent source of disbelief in Victorian times than 
the Darwinian Revolution which followed, in the 1840s and 1850s. In- 
deed Charles Darwin himself professed belief and was at pains to em- 
phasise that his work had no direct bearing on arguments for or against 
the existence of God. Nonetheless his work was used by the atheists, 
now organised and vocal, to assault belief frontally. His most articulate 
and forceful follower, T. H. Huxley, virtually declared intellectual war 
on Christianity at the 1860 Oxford meeting of the British Association 
for the Advancement of Science-and was widely held to have got the 
better of Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, 

The God who zvould not die / 9 

on that exciting occasion. Thereafter it became almost a commonplace, 
in intellectual circles, to assume that religious belief was a receding 
force in human spirituality, and this applied whether you valued it or 
despised it. Ernest Renan's Vie de Jesus (1863) betrayed a sentimental 
attachment to Christ's ideas but presented him as a purely historical 
and human figure. Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other hand, declared the 
death of God to be not merely a fact but a liberation for humanity: he 
appeared to hate God so much as almost to bring him back to life as a 
malevolent monster. Probably the most accurate presentation of the 
prevailing sentiment, on both sides of the Atlantic, was provided by 
Matthew Arnold's haunting poem, Dover Beach (1867), which stressed 
the almost unbearable sadness among sensitive and righteous men 
which the loss of faith occasioned. 'The Sea of Faith', Arnold writes. 

Was once too, at the full, and round earth's shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd. 

But now I only hear 

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. 

Retreating, to the breath 

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 

And naked shingles of the world. 

This slowly became, and has remained, Arnold's best-known and most 
quoted poem, because so many intelligent and sensitive people exactly 
shared its awareness of the decline of faith, and regretted the loss of 
certitude. But there are problems with the poem. The image, though 
memorable, is not well suited to the loss of faith, if that loss is indeed 
irrecoverable. Tides do not merely ebb, they flow. The sea does not just 
withdraw and retreat, it returns and advances. If we pursue Arnold's 
metaphor, we can expect faith not just to decline but in time to recover. 
Alternatively, if Arnold was using the metaphor to portray a once-and- 
for-all disappearance of the sea of faith from mankind's Dover Beach, 
his forecast has been belied by the events of the twentieth century. The 
sea has not vanished leaving a naked shingle. What Arnold saw as a 
continuing event, in a Hegelian sense-he was much influenced by 
Hegel's ideas-until faith had disappeared completely and yielded to a 
higher form, has not continued. The 

10 / The Quest for God 

withdrawal has halted. There may be no more positive atheists than in 
Arnold's time. There are without doubt many more agnostics. But 
equally there are many more believers. It is impossible to say whether 
the percentage of believers in the world is higher now than it was in 
the second half of the nineteenth century, partly because it is so difficult 
to define what we mean by belief, among Western populations let alone 
among Asian and African ones. But clearly, the event which Arnold 
thought would in time be completed, and which he tried to depict 
metaphorically, has not occurred. We still live in a world where the 
great majority believe in something, in some way or another. Indeed, 
many more than a billion human beings are Christians-more than there 
were in the 1860s, when Arnold wrote the poem. 

So Arnold was wrong. He was needlessly pessimistic. We can see too 
that Hegel was wrong because we have had demonstrated, before our 
eyes, the catastrophic failure of the system based on the ideas of his 
most influential follower, Karl Marx. The collapse of the Communist 
empire, or realised Marxism, in total and unqualified ruin, has been a 
vivid and costly and utterly persuasive demonstration that Hegel's 
central proposition, translated by Marx into political and economic 
terms, that human beings progress from lower to higher forms, is false. 
Humankind may improve and learn to behave better, at any rate up to 
a point, but it does not change in fundamentals, and Utopian visions 
are dangerous fallacies. And one way in which men and women do not 
fundamentally change is that they continue to hanker for a supreme 
being, above and outside themselves. 

I was much struck by a story I read in the newspaper in 1979, and I 
have often thought about it since. During the early summer of that year, 
near Luxor in Upper Egypt, the local police found the bones of a 35- 
year-old Canadian woman, who had disappeared two years before 
without trace. It appeared that, while wandering alone over an ancient 
burial site, nearly 4,000 years old, she had stumbled into a deep labyrinth 
of abandoned archaeological diggings, sixteen feet deep. Unable to 
climb up its crumbling sides of earth and sand, she had died a lonely 
and horrible death, of hunger and thirst. She had with her a picture- 
postcard, and on it she described what had happened. She knew, she 
said, that escape was impossible and rescue almost hopeless, and con- 
cluded: 'I am 

The God who zvould not die /II 

preparing myself for death.' She did not say to which, if any, of the 
formidable secular philosophies of her time she had turned in her last 
days and hours; or whether, like most ordinary people of all ages and 
races throughout history, she had placed her trust in a deity. But she 
knew that death was coming to her, and that she must prepare for it. 
The instinct to prepare for death, to anticipate it and in some way to 
confront it, is absolutely fundamental in mankind. I believe the woman 
felt she was to meet, if not her maker, then someone or something, and 
that she must get ready for this encounter. It is significant that, only a 
few hundred yards from where this heart-sickening little tragedy oc- 
curred, the theologians of ancient Egypt, around 2000 BC, had first cla- 
rified the concept of individual death and judgment-a concept which, 
however confusedly, was in the stricken woman's mind, is with us still, 
and is likely to remain with us, indeed, as long as the human race en- 

Why has belief in God-or belief in something beyond us-endured in 
the twentieth century? There seem to be many reasons. Let us look at 
them in turn. First, it seems as though science, which once upset the 
certitudes of so many Victorian believers, has lost its power to shake 
faith. Scientific knowledge has marched on in the twentieth century, 
faster and more formidably than ever. Yet, as Darwin himself first 
pointed out, what science tells us does not necessarily have any relev- 
ance to what we feel in our minds and hearts about God. The physical 
and the metaphysical can be seen to exist on different planes. The great 
scientific discoveries and engineering events of the twentieth century 
are primarily statements not about God but about man, and the state 
of his knowledge. The theologians of the eighteenth century found no 
difficulty in reconciling Newtonian physics with God's universe. But 
when Albert Einstein first published his General Theory of Relativity 
in 1915, which turned Newton's straight lines into curves, and presented 
space-time as a continuum rather than separate dimensions, and when 
the General Theory was verified in 1919, there was no convulsion in 
the religious world, no attempt to challenge or deny the change in our 
view of cosmology. It is as though the world of religion had long since 
learned to absorb all the shocks of science. When human beings split 
the atom, and then created nuclear energy; when they built rockets 

22 / The Quest for God 

and landed on the moon, and sent other rockets to distant space; when 
they discovered the double helix and began to decode the genetic basis 
of creation, and learned to splice genes and make entirely new living 
substances-when all these dramatic events took place, human belief or 
disbelief in a prime mover or a first cause or a divine creation remained 
unaffected. Science and the religious life continued alongside each 
other throughout our century. Often they overlapped. It is significant 
that the great majority of those who work in the scientific world-perhaps 
as many as 80 per cent-profess some kind of religious belief. 

It is, therefore, a notable fact about the twentieth century that, during 
it, science and religion ceased to be enemies. In some modest ways they 
became friends. Looking back on them, the great rows between the 
clergy and the scientists in the nineteenth century seem childish. Hard 
to say, now, who cut a more absurd figure in 1860, Bishop Wilberforce 
or Professor Huxley. The great evolutionary and geological discoveries 
of the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s and 1850s upset the traditional religious 
chronologies. So what? These chronologies were gimcrack schemes 
worked out by pious men who took the biblical patriarch-lists literally 
or, rather, assumed they were as comprehensive as they claimed. Such 
clues were useless to determine prescriptive history, as is obvious to 
all now. But it does not mean that the patriarch-lists are mere myth, 
any more than the king-lists of Ancient Egypt. 

In fact, the science of modern archaeology and historical philology 
actually provides verification of the most ancient biblical texts. Whereas, 
from the time of Spinoza, throughout the nineteenth century and almost 
up to the Second World War, systematic criticism of the Old Testament 
texts tended to destroy their historicity, and to reduce the Pentateuch, 
in particular, to mere myth or tribal legend, the trend over the last half- 
century has been quite in the opposite direction. The Flood, for instance, 
has been restored to history. Archaeological discovery provides now a 
firm historical background to the patriarchal society described in the 
Book of Genesis. Such names as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, far from 
being later eponyms, attached to collective groups or tribes or nations, 
were in fact common in the Ancient Near East during the first half of 
the second millennium BC. The French excavations at the ancient palace 
of Mari, and still more the American exca- 

The God who zvould not die / 13 

vations at Yorgan Tepe (ancient Nuzu) 100 miles north of Kirkuk in Iraq, 
have produced an enormous number of cuneiform documents-over 
20,000 clay tablets, dating from the fifteenth century BC, in Nuzu alone- 
which illuminate the background to the patriarchal narratives. Many 
of these tablets are from private archives, recording exactly the kind of 
legal transactions, so puzzling to us, in the patriarchal stories. The 
proposal for the adoption of Eliezir as heir-presumptive to Abraham, 
the latter's negotiations with Sarah, the transfer of a birthright from 
Esau to Jacob, the binding power of a deathbed blessing and disposition 
of property, Rachel's theft of her father's teraphim or household gods 
and Jacob's tortuous legal relations with Laban-all of these were in ac- 
cordance with standard legal practice as illustrated repeatedly in the 
Mari and Nuzu tablets. 

Thus science, having once appeared to destroy the historicity of the 
Bible, now seems more likely, on the whole, to corroborate it. I could 
give many other examples-most of the cities mentioned in the Old 
Testament, for instance, have now been identified and their remains 
explored. Of course, none of this proves God exists, only that the ancient 
people of the Hebrews believed he did. However, another science, as- 
trophysics, does have an inherent tendency to bring us closer to the 
creator, or a creator. The universe is so vast that information from its 
distant corners, albeit travelling at the speed of light, may take millions 
of years to reach us. In theory, then, it is possible for us to study very 
ancient history in distant stars. All we need, in fact, is the physical in- 
strumentation to look far enough. What we do know confirms the bib- 
lical notion of a specific moment of creation. Some years ago, I remember 
listening, or half-listening, to a talk on the radio about the Big Bang 
which set the entire universe in motion. I suddenly sprang into con- 
sciousness and exclaimed, 'But this is the first chapter of Genesis, told 
in scientific terminology!' The Big Bang theory of the origins of the 
universe is now accepted by virtually all astrophysicists. It has yet to 
be verified for certain, though all recent discoveries tend in that direc- 
tion. However, the day on which we will be able to see, by study of 
distant space, the actual moment of first creation may not be far distant. 
It is a matter of money, rather than technology. We have the physical 
means, even now, of erecting a giant telescope on the moon, which for 
a variety of 

24 / The Quest for God 

reasons could function far more effectively than on earth. Images of 
such a telescope, radioed back to earth, could distinctly show us two 
people tossing a coin in the streets of New York or London, and could 
tell us whether it landed heads or tails. The same telescope, directed 
into the far peripheries of the universe, could take us so far back in time 
as to approach the moment of creation itself. 

At that stage we would know how the universe came into being. Of 
course, that does not automatically tell us who did it. But it was a famous 
maxim of Dorothy L. Sayers' fictional detective. Lord Peter Wimsey, 
that 'If you know how, you know who.' What applies to murder invest- 
igations does not necessarily apply to cosmogony. But the point is worth 
thinking about. If we can see the moment of creation, how long will it 
be before we can apprehend the creator too? 

Of course, these are wild speculations and I do not put too much 
stress on the ability of science to teach us theology. All the same, it 
would have astonished Bishop Wilberforce to see science suddenly 
emerge as theology's strong right arm, even in theory. And yet-why 
not? Medieval intellectuals, like St Thomas Aquinas, did not see them 
as enemies-on the contrary, he called theology 'the Queen of the Sci- 
ences'. Aristotle would have taken the same view: to know about God 
was the highest of all forms of knowledge, and it was only natural for 
all the sciences, humble and sublime, to pursue that end. So what might 
be called the friendly neutrality, or the benevolent objectivity, of science 
in the twentieth century is one reason why God has stayed in men's 

Another is the actual events of our dreadful century. The evil done 
in our times is beyond computation and almost beyond the imaginations 
of our forebears. There is nothing in the previous history of the world 
to compare with the scale and intensity of destruction of the two world 
wars, with the indiscriminate slaughter of the bombing of European 
and Japanese cities-even before the use of the A-bomb-and with the 
colossal cruelty of the Nazi death-camps and Soviet Gulag. More than 
150 million people have been killed by state violence in our century. 
One might expect most people to ask: how can God allow such things? 
Or, how can there be a God if such complete moral anarchy reigns? Yet 
experience shows that only a tiny minority ask these questions. 

The God who zvould not die / 15 

Most people react to the horrors of war by turning to God for protection, 
solace and comfort. 

Again, a few critics of religion point out scornfully that in both world 
wars. Catholic and Protestant chaplains administered to the troops on 
both sides, bade them fight courageously in a righteous cause, and 
prayed with them for victory. In the United States and Britain on the 
one hand, in Germany on the other, the churches were packed with 
worshippers praying for mutually incompatible views of justice. How, 
the critics ask, could God preside over this moral confusion? But such 
arguments cut no ice with most people. It is worth remembering that, 
during the American Civil War, the Protestant churches (the Catholic 
authorities did their best to stay out of the controversy) were right to 
the forefront in backing the cause of States' Rights on the one hand, and 
Emancipation on the other, that they were among the most vehement 
in urging both sides to fight to the finish, and that, without them, the 
war would have been less ferocious, and would have ended sooner. 
All that may be so, but it is an undeniable historical fact that most of 
the churches concerned emerged stronger from the war. The Southern 
churches, in particular, having separated themselves from their 
Northern brethren, and acquired separate identities, entered on a long 
period of growth and militancy, characteristics which endure to this 
day. America's Bible Belt, the heartland of Protestant fundamentalism 
in the United States, is in many ways the product of the Civil War. Some 
of America's most God-fearing institutions-universities, colleges, 
churches, charities, missionary and revivalist centres-are the products 
of that fearful conflict. 

So it has been in the twentieth century. Its horrors were instrumental 
in turning men and women towards God rather than against him. Most 
people saw the wars as themselves the products of Godlessness, mater- 
ialism and sin, and their perpetrators as those who had banished God 
from their hearts. And it is undeniable that the two greatest institutional 
tyrannies of the century-indeed of all time-the Nazi Reich and the Soviet 
Union, were Godless constructs: modern paganism in the first case and 
openly proclaimed atheist materialism in the second. The death-camps 
and the slave-camps were products not of God but of anti-God. Hitler 
was born and brought up a Roman Catholic and Stalin was once a 
Russian Orthodox apprentice-monk, but it is hard to 

16 / The Quest for God 

imagine any two men in history who were more bereft of basic Christian 
instincts or more systematically committed to the destruction of Chris- 
tian values. 

Both these regimes persecuted Christians, the Soviet Union more 
thoroughly but in some respects less viciously than the Nazi Reich. 
Both these attempts to damage or crush Christianity failed utterly. The 
churches were, if anything, revitalised by Nazi and Communist hostility, 
and emerged stronger. Oppression, torture and executions of Christians 
who protested against these regimes produced a rich crop of saints and 
martyrs, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, whose sufferings and ex- 
ample have nourished the faith all over Europe. 

The outstanding collective example of the way in which the horrors 
of the twentieth century promoted organised religion and belief in God 
has been Poland. Poland is a morally ambivalent country in some ways. 
It has been both a persecutor of Jews and a refuge for them. Like the 
Jews, it has been an egregious victim and, in a paradoxical way, it has 
flourished as a result of the experience. Wedged between the pagan 
and the atheist colossi, occupied by both, plundered and ravaged by 
both and, above all, religiously persecuted by both-for both saw the 
Catholic Church as the very essence of the Polish spirit of resistance- 
God-fearing and God-praising Poland emerged stronger from this 
searing experience. The Polish church is now the strongest Christian 
church in Europe, perhaps in the world. Even on weekdays, in the early 
hours of the morning, churches in Poland are thronged with worship- 
pers and communicants. There are more priests and seminarians, more 
monks, friars and nuns, than ever before. No one saw more clearly than 
the Poles that their religious faith, their belief in God, and their adher- 
ence to his commands was the best defence-usually their only defence- 
to the Nazi and Communist attempts to crush them out of existence. 
Hence, in the post-war period, it was Poland which began the process 
of undermining, then overthrowing, the Communist tyranny in Eastern 
Europe. It was Poland which made available to the Catholic Church 
thousands of priests, missionaries, teachers, theologians and evangelists 
to strengthen the Christian faith throughout the world. Finally it was 
Poland which produced the greatest of the twentieth-century popes, 
John Paul II, who has treated the entire globe as 

The God who zvould not die / 17 

his parish and has carried the Christian message, as he sees it, to every 
corner of all five continents. You may or may not agree with what John 
Paul II teaches in some areas. But it cannot be denied, even by his critics, 
that he presents Roman Catholic Christianity, pure and undefiled, in 
its most uncompromising and rigorous form, that he makes no conces- 
sions whatever to the twentieth century and its hedonism, and that 
despite this-almost certainly because of this, too-he is listened to and 
heeded by hundreds of millions throughout the world. That unwilling- 
ness to compromise in the face of evil springs directly from the Polish 
experience, and that in turn is the fruit of a twentieth century which set 
out to banish God and ended by confirming him in many hearts. 

There is a third reason why belief in God has survived the twentieth 
century. That is the total, and in many cases abject, failure of the altern- 
atives to God. This phenomenon is so striking that it merits separate 


Is there an alternative to God? 

It is a striking fact that, at the end of the twentieth century, the vast 
majority of people in the world still believe in a god, and this is true 
even of those who live in the 'enlightened' West. But it cannot be denied, 
also, that the Promethean spirit, the spirit of those who believe they can 
do without God-or that they can find substitutes for God-is also strong 
today, perhaps stronger than ever before. This Promethean spirit, proud 
of man's progress and seemingly limitless potential, unwilling to submit 
to the subordination which the notion of God demands, driving itself 
first to resistance, then to denial that God exists at all, has been growing 
with dramatic speed over the past 250 years. It is presented as the voice 
of modernity, the creed of rationalism, the march of progress. It preaches 
the absurdity of belief in God, the fatuity of religious doctrine, and the 
positive evil of much of the teachings and practices of the organised 
faiths. In the Western world today, it is possible that a majority of the 
people who consider themselves well educated-that is, who have atten- 
ded university, read books regularly and regard themselves as people 
who think seriously about the public issues of the day, and the meaning 
of life- would range themselves in the Promethean camp, with varying 
degrees of consciousness and enthusiasm. Scepticism towards or denial 
of the existence of God is the hallmark of modern homo sapiens-Thinking 

One characteristic of the Prometheans has always been, and is still 
today, to mock at the beliefs of religious people, especially Christians. 
Voltaire began the practice. It is fashionable even now, notably in the 
polemics of Professor Richard Dawkins of New College, Oxford, a 
biologist and author of The Selfish Gene, who has put himself at the head 
of the Prometheans in Britain and is 

Is there an alternative to God? / 19 

probably today the world's best-known atheist evangelist. To such 
people, Christianity is an absurdity, not just because it subscribes to an 
impossible belief in God-who does not exist-not only because it is an 
anti-social force in the world-for instance, by opposing artificial birth 
control-but also and above all because it teaches a whole series of ridicu- 
lous doctrines. These range from the resurrection of the dead to tran- 
substantiation (consubstantiation is scarcely more credible), from belief 
in miracles to Papal Infallibility. To the Prometheans, religion would 
be a joke, were it not so serious, and destructive. And, certainly, if you 
look back at some of the things which religious men have taught and 
believed in over the long centuries of Christianity, it is hard not to smile. 

However, it is a moot point whether to preach and believe in the 
manifestly incredible is a characteristic of Christians or of homo sapiens 
as a whole. For what is most remarkable about the Promethean move- 
ment is not its castigation of Christianity but the absurdity of its own 
alternative explanations of life. I find that one of the many advantages 
of being a historian is that you are constantly obliged to refer to the 
exact data, to what precisely happened at any one time, and what people 
actually said then. The record of the Prometheans, to judge by their 
utterances, is no more impressive than that of the benighted and obscur- 
antist Christian clergy they denounced. Here, taken almost as random, 
are some of them. For instance in 1764, by which time the Prometheans 
were already powerful in educated society, their leader, Voltaire, wrote: 
'Theological religion is the enemy of mankind.' Note: not an enemy, 
but the enemy. There are many enemies of mankind today, many more 
than in Voltaire's time, I fear, but no one in his senses would put 
'theological religion' high on his list. Or again, here is Winwood Reade, 
whose powerful tract The Martyrdom of Man was a bible of many atheists 
in the late nineteenth century: 'The destruction of Christianity is essential 
to the interests of civilisation.' Note again, the tone of extremism: not 
'desirable' but 'essential'. Today, our civilisation, or what is left of it, 
seems far more fragile than in Reade's fortunate lifetime, and were he 
to return to earth today I do not believe he would find a solitary soul, 
agnostic, atheist or anything else, who would agree that the destruction 
of Christianity is essential to keep civilisation 

20 / The Quest for God 

going. Quite the reverse. The vast majority see it as a prop, however 

Other central propositions of the Promethean faction, or what at the 
end of the nineteenth century became known as the humanists, seem 
equally ridiculous with the passage of time. Ernest Renan, the French 
popular historian and seer, was foolish enough to write: 'History proves 
beyond possibility of contradiction that Christianity is not a supernat- 
ural fact.' Poor Renan! So plausible and sure of himself in his day, when 
his agnostic Vie de Jesus was one of the top best-sellers of the entire 
nineteenth century, and now no more convincing than Bishop Usher, 
who worked out from the Old Testament the exact day and year the 
world began. Both now raise only smiles of compassion. 

Actually, Renan, by the standards of most nineteenth-century anti- 
religious intellectuals, survives comparatively well. The ones who ap- 
pear most absurd are precisely those who tried to apply the principles 
of contemporary science-the frontiers of knowledge-to explain the world 
in non-religious terms. The French lexicographer Emile Littre defined 
'soul' as 'anatomically the sum of functions of the neck and spinal 
column, physiologically the sum of function of the power of perception 
in the brain'. Not exactly helpful, is it? The German follower of Darwin, 
Ernst Haeckel, by contrast, wrote: 'We now know that. . .the soul [is] a 
sum of plasma-movements in the ganglion cells.' In England, Professor 
John Tyndall thought 'all life' was 'once latent in a fiery cloud'. In 
France, the philosopher-historian Hyppolite Taine stated: 'Man is a 
spiritual automaton. . .Vice and virtue are products like sugar and vitri- 
ol.' Late nineteenth-century atheists were particularly positive, though 
contradictory, on the process of thought. Karl Vogt laid down: 'Thoughts 
come out of the brain as gall from the liver or urine from the kidneys.' 
Jacob Moleshott was even more certain: 'No thought [can emerge] 
without phosphorus.' 

The twentieth-century Prometheans do not survive with much more 
credit and their obiter dicta are already acquiring the same fusty whiff 
of absurdity. H. G. Wells, world-famous in his day, not least in America, 
was a marvellous writer of science fiction, but it is now almost im- 
possible to point to a single pronouncement of his on society in his own 
day which carries the ring of truth or 

Is there an alternative to God? 1 21 

even mere plausibility. He ended his life (in 1945) in despair, having 
painted a strange mural on the walls of his London house, of horned 
devils and an image of Man, accompanied by the slogan: 'Time to Go'. 
Bertrand Russell, whom I knew-he figures prominently in my book 
Intellectuals-was perhaps the leading evangelist of anti-God rationalism 
of the century. But it is hard to find a subject-and he wrote on most 
subjects, including those of the highest importance-on which he did 
not change his mind fundamentally, often more than once, and usually 
without explanation or apology; indeed his rule was to deny that any 
change of position had taken place. His immense output, supposedly 
offering an alternative philosophy of life and morals to one based on 
belief in God, thus leaves the reader who struggles through it-and there 
cannot be many these days-with an impression of total confusion. The 
truth is, Russell could not devise a Promethean alternative to God which 
convinced even himself for more than a few years; his secular faith was 
in a state of constant osmosis, like that of Auguste Comte, who occupied 
the same position of intellectual eminence in the mid-nineteenth century 
as Russell did in the twentieth and is now simply a joke, if a pathetic 

Russell's most passionate disciple was the late Sir Alfred Ayer (A. J. 
Ayer), an engaging man, like Russell a tremendous egoist and an un- 
consciously comic figure, in whose company I delighted. We used to 
meet at the Beefsteak Club, where I enjoyed teasing him. 'Freddie, I 
suppose it would be a correct statement to say you are the most intelli- 
gent man in Britain.' 'Oh, no, no, no, my dear fellow,' he would begin 
modestly, 'don't be so absurd.' Then, intellectual rigour and his love 
of truth would assert themselves. 'Well, if one looks at the statement 
seriously-if one considers-if, in short, one wishes to be strictly honest, 
I suppose-indeed I must-c onclude you are right; you are, in fact, abso- 
lutely rightY My other tease was to threaten to visit him on his deathbed, 
accompanied by a Jesuit of powerful intellect, who would convert him 
to Roman Catholicism at the eleventh hour. I soon realised this genu- 
inely frightened him, so I dropped it. In fact, Ayer's end was a little 
mysterious, because he had a physical experience which convinced him 
he had died and come to life again, and his final writings on the subject 
are so unclear to me that I am not sure whether he met his God in a 
state of disbelief, belief or 

22 / The Quest for God 

genuine doubt. At all events, as with Russell himself, there was evidence 
of instability and confusion in Ayer's thought. 

A third leading Promethean I knew, Jean-Paul Sartre, died I think in 
a state of disbelief, but his life and writings are no better an advertise- 
ment for the secular, humanistic, alternative to religious faith than 
Russell's. Sartre was not a bad fellow in some ways. He was, for instance, 
one of the very few progressive intellectuals I have ever met who was 
really generous about money. But the heroic secular morality he 
preached, derived largely from Heidegger and christened by the media 
'existentialism', was belied by the extraordinary squalor, selfishness, 
confusion, cruelty and not least cowardice of his own life. His final 
years, in fact, were squalid bordering on the horrific. Moreover, there 
was in his writings-his output, like Russell's, was enormous-a degree 
not so much of inconsistency, though there was certainly that too, as 
of incoherence, so that in the end one was not clear what, if anything, 
he did believe, and what, if anything, he advised humanity to do. Sartre, 
I feel, bewildered even his intellectual followers, who were once numer- 
ous. What then had he, classified in his heyday in the late 1940s as the 
world's leading philosopher, to offer to the great mass of ordinary 
people? Yet if there is to be a truly secular, humanist alternative to God, 
it must speak clearly to the masses, as Christianity has always done. 

Humanism, in our time, has been a dismaying failure, and my impres- 
sion is that, at any rate as a substantial body of thought, it is in decline. 
It is interesting to note that, in Europe, membership of organised atheist 
and humanist societies, as a proportion of the population, reached its 
peak in the 1880s, at roughly the same time as the maximum percentage 
of those regularly attending church. But while Christianity has survived, 
and in many places flourishes and renews itself, no one could now 
conceivably believe that humanism is the spiritual force of the future, 
or indeed anything at all except a faint impress in the minds of a small 
minority. A more interesting and difficult question is the degree of 
harm it has done, particularly in our century. I believe that the political 
teachings of Sartre, for instance, were immensely pernicious among the 
French-educated leaders of Third World countries in South-East Asia 
and North Africa. The genocidal leaders of the Pol Pot regime were in 
a sense Sartre's children. In 

Is there an alternative to God? / 23 

general, however, the humanist impact was ephemeral and in many 
respects superficial. Millions read Wells and saw the plays of George 
Bernard Shaw, found them clever, were impressed for a time, then 
laughed, as the absurdities and misjudgments-and essential frivolity- 
of both became manifest, and went their ordinary, humble ways as be- 
fore. Russell, like Sartre, retained a small, fanatical following to the end; 
but had neither man existed, such grotesque disciples would have found 
equally irritational and eccentric masters to serve. 

Far more dangerous than the humanist impact have been the twenti- 
eth-century attempts to find substitutes for God-attempts both conscious 
and unconscious- which appeal not so much to the intellectual preten- 
sions as to much deeper, darker and stronger instincts in mankind. The 
detonator of the modern tragedy of humankind was the First World 
War, which began in Europe in 1914 and which America joined three 
years later. Its destructive impact on established and improving notions 
of human behaviour and international morality was immeasurable and 
we are still suffering from its consequences. This war was not merely 
without reason, it was plainly avoidable. What caused it? I suggest it 
was, above all, the worship of money and still more power which 
already, by 1914, was becoming for many people a substitute for the 
worship of God. We have already noted that in Europe the percentage 
of the population attending church regularly began to decline, for the 
first time, from the end of the 1880s. Now church attendance is not a 
key, certainly not the key, to social and individual morality. But history 
suggests that the regular practice of a structured religion does impose 
restraints on human appetites, both individual and collective, which 
are difficult to achieve by any other means. 

In the United States church attendance continued to rise until the end 
of the 1950s, but in Europe its fall around the beginning of the twentieth 
century was accompanied by a marked and progressive increase in 
materialism, at all levels of society. What is materialism? It is the belief 
that the object of life is to satisfy instinctual human desires to possess, 
use, consume and control. At all levels of society, the growth of mater- 
ialism leads to forms of moral squalor which make the heart sick and 
destroy decency and happiness. At the highest levels it leads to war, 
and to war on 

24 / The Quest for God 

a scale and of a savagery hitherto inconceivable. The growth of gross 
national products in the years 1890-1914, especially in the United States, 
Russia, Germany and Japan, was truly prodigious. This led to greedy 
competition and, not least, fear. One primary cause of the First World 
War was terror among Germany's rulers that Russian industrial growth 
was now so rapid, and must inevitably be reflected in such growing 
military power, that Germany, with her weaker ally Austria, had a duty 
to provoke the Russian bear into conflict while they were still strong 
enough to overwhelm the monster. The courts of central and eastern 
Europe were still nominally Christian but riddled with superstition and 
Erastianism. Russian Orthodoxy was a state church of the most craven 
kind. Prussian Lutheranism was an enthusiastic bedfellow of a largely 
militarised society. Austrian Catholicism was a formal palace creed 
which had long since cut itself off from spiritual roots of any kind. In 
France the militant secularists won an overwhelming political victory 
in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair and had systematically tried to 
purge the state, the schools and the armed forces of Christian influences. 
In all four states, the spiritual vacuum thus created was increasingly 
filled by adoration of power, above all military power. Guns replaced 
altars, and barracks churches. Thus the stage for catastrophe was set. 

The war was fought with a degree of unscrupulousness and high 
technology-and thus violence-never before experienced in world history. 
It reversed the increasing civility of the nineteenth century and intro- 
duced an era of extremism in thought and action which itself bred sys- 
tematic attempts to create totalitarian alternatives to religion. These 
produced formulae for horrors yet unimagined by man. The first, the 
Soviet Communism imposed on Russia from 1917, specifically denied 
the existence of God, whom its ideological mentor, Karl Marx, described 
as an imaginative superstructure on the capitalist system of production. 
Change the system, and the notion of religion itself would gradually 
fade from people's minds. The system was certainly changed, but it 
was nonetheless found necessary to close down by force thousands of 
churches, synagogues and mosques, add compulsory atheism to the 
school curriculum, and slaughter thousands of practising Christians, 
Jews and Muslims-policies which continued unremittingly until the 
late 1980s. Grotesque secular alter- 

Is there an alternative to God? / 25 

natives to traditional Christian practices were devised. Baptism and 
confirmation were replaced by induction into the komsomol youth 
movement. Elaborate but lifeless secular marriage-services were con- 
ducted in Moscow's Hall of Weddings. The founder Lenin, once dead, 
was installed in a patriarchal tomb and worshipped. His successor 
Stalin was adored while yet alive and, like the savage gods of Aztec 
Mexico, demanded and received worship by hecatombs of sacrificial 

Other living gods sprang up from the diseased bowels of this altern- 
ative religion: petty but nonetheless bloodthirsty deities like Hoxha of 
Albania and Ceau escu of Romania, and self-proclaimed supergods like 
China's Mao, who wrote and forced his entire nation to learn by heart 
his catechism or Little Red Book, and who performed 'miracles', such 
as swimming 20 miles in the Yangtze at the age of 75. When the entire 
worldwide system of murder, mendacity and fraud began to collapse 
at the end of the 1980s, evidence of every form of corruption known to 
man began to emerge from this system based on 'reason' and 'idealism'- 
rather as, when the triumphant Christians first took over pagan Alex- 
andria, they discovered that wooden idols which miraculously spoke 
oracles had hidden recesses in which the devil-priests had concealed 
themselves while oraculating, and from which now sprang forth swarms 
of mice and rats and other vermin. 

This first totalitarian alternative to God, founded in 1917, bred others. 
Mussolini, himself originally an orthodox Marxist, praised by Lenin, 
then branded a heretic, founded a new political church. He adopted 
the symbols of ancient, pagan Rome, but his Lascist movement was 
never quite sure whether to deny the existence of God, or subvert and 
utilise it, whether to persecute the church or exploit it. Mussolini himself 
oscillated between atheist braggadocio and the craven superstition 
typical of the most primitive forms of Italian Catholicism, but it was 
still unclear whether he was a Christian when, in 1945, summarily ex- 
ecuted, he was hung, naked and upside down, alongside his mistress 
on the shores of Lake Como. Hitler's Nazism, based on both the Soviet 
and Italian models, but with many characteristics drawn from southern 
Germany and Austria, was more deliberately and consciously an attack 
on Christianity, and an alternative to it. It preached various 

26 / The Quest for God 

forms of purity, including race-purity. Hitler spoke of 'the higher 
morality of the Party' to justify mass-murder, just as Lenin used the 
excuse of what he called 'the Revolutionary Conscience'. The Nazis 
devised elaborate quasi-religious services, ranging from mass parades 
with sacred torches, to private wedding ceremonies between party 
members, who had to prove their Aryan ancestry. Both involved ancient 
pagan practices, such as sacrificial fires, sprinkling of salt, incense and 
other substances, the swearing of vows and blood-pledges, and millen- 
arian hymns. The striking characteristic of Hitler's alternative to God 
is that, while in theory appealing to the highest human ideals, it ex- 
ploited in practice the basest human instincts-cruelty, greed, corruption 
and the desire to tyrannise over the weak. It also combined a yearning 
for a primitive past, the pagan forest culture of the Nibelungenlied, with 
the rapid acquisition and use of the most modern methods of warfare, 
torture and mass-slaughter. Hitler's own end illustrated this sinister 
paradox, he being immolated on a pagan funeral pyre inflamed by ersatz 

Such totalitarian substitutes for religion spread rapidly in the 1960s, 
following the withdrawal of the colonial powers, to Africa and parts of 
Asia. Voltaire's dictum that religion was the enemy of mankind rang 
particularly hollow in South-East Asia (as well as China), where the 
missionary Catholicism of the French was replaced by the totalitarian 
poverty and militarism of Ho Chi Minh, who soon had the largest armed 
forces, in relation to population, in the world, and by the genocide of 
Pol Pot. Missionaries had been accused of many 'crimes' in Africa and 
the East-of trying to stamp out human sacrifice, polygamy and canni- 
balism, for instance, of forcing local women to cover their nakedness, 
and their husbands to make love to them in the orthodox 'missionary 
position'. What a golden age it now seemed, as large parts of Africa 
embraced the Communist alternative to God, and so plunged themselves 
into civil and internecine wars, perpetrated man-made famines, as had 
Stalin in Russia, and acquired huge armies and modern weapons at the 
cost of everything else. The martyrdom of Ethiopia-a Christian state, if 
an elementary and rough-hewn one, since the fourth century-has been 
of particular poignancy, as its noble-looking and God-fearing people 
were decimated by endless civil war, famine and disease. And, in many 

Is there an alternative to God? / 27 

parts of black Africa, where missionaries had tried to introduce Western 
standards of moral behaviour along with their altars, self-made chief- 
tains, now calling themselves generals and presidents, reverted to mass- 
slaughter on a colossal scale and in some cases to cannibalism too. The 
witch-doctor and the commissar walked hand in hand to assist in this 
continental tragedy. 

In the minds of almost all intelligent people in the West, these totalit- 
arian alternatives to God, whether sophisticated or primitive, have now 
been demonstrated to be incorrigibly destructive and evil. Belief in them 
lingers on, only in that home of lost causes-though even there fitfully 
now-the university campus. There are still Marxist dons, just as, if Hitler 
had won the war, there would still be Nazi dons. But the intellectual 
consensus has now belatedly joined the commensense consensus, that 
totalitarianism is the negation of morality. However, that does not mean 
that the search for Godless solutions has been abandoned. Quite the 
contrary. Even Marxism itself, though conclusively and repeatedly 
demonstrated to be a system of thought without the smallest merit, 
created by an intellectual crook who constantly invented and manipu- 
lated his so-called 'scientific evidence', has reappeared in a quasi-reli- 
gious form in the teachings known as Liberation Theology. This is 
plainly and simply an anti-Christian heresy, without any moral basis, 
and indeed, as experience in Latin America has shown, a source of vi- 
olence and great moral evil. 

Even more worrying are the non-Marxist alternatives to God now 
being canvassed, because some at least of them contain elements of ra- 
tionality and even of justice and therefore exercise a genuine appeal. 
An acquaintance of mine, whom I think I should now term a former 
Marxist, not so long ago expressed himself undaunted by the intellec- 
tual collapse of Communism as a system for promoting prosperity 
combined with equality. Marxist economic theory, he argued, and its 
stress on the industrial aspects of materialism, had always been a han- 
dicap. 'What we can now turn to,' he said, 'are far more attractive and 
exciting forms of action-race politics, sexual politics, environmental 
politics, health politics. There are other forms of action which will 
emerge in due course whereby we will transform and overthrow existing 

We are here concerned not with the overthrow or defence of 

28 / The Quest for God 

existing society, but with the alternatives to God men have proposed 
in our times. But to some extent the two topics are the same. The radical 
agenda my acquaintance listed, with its strong appeal to the idealistic, 
as well as the materialistic, instincts of mankind, especially among 
young people, does constitute an alternative religion. Like any other 
form of humanism, it replaces God by man, and the welfare-or supposed 
welfare-of man, rather than the worship of God and obedience to his 
commandments, as the object of human existence and the purpose of 
society. That, of course, is its radical defect. The Jesuit theologian Karl 
Rahner once argued that it is the consciousness of God, the acceptance 
that there is a power outside and above ourselves, to whom we owe 
allegiance and whose guidance we must follow, which essentially dis- 
tinguishes mankind from other creatures. If belief in God were ever to 
fade completely from the human mind, we would not. Promethean- 
like, become masters of our fate; on the contrary, we would descend to 
the status of very clever animals, and our ultimate destiny would be 
too horrible to contemplate. 

I believe this argument to be profoundly true, and corroborated by 
history, and what worries me about the new radical agenda is the danger 
that it will dehumanise man just as the totalitarian alternatives did, 
though no doubt in rather different ways. But there are further, related 
objections. All the items on the agenda lend themselves to extremism. 
Take, for instance, the issue of homosexuality, an important part of the 
sexual politics item. There were many of us, in the 1960s, who felt that 
there were grave practical and moral objections to the criminalisation 
of homosexuality, and who therefore supported, as happened in most 
Western countries, changes in the law which meant that certain forms 
of homosexual behaviour ceased to be unlawful. Homosexuality itself 
was still to be publicly regarded by society, let alone by the churches, 
as a great moral evil, but men who engaged in it, within strictly defined 
limits, would no longer be sent to prison. We believed this change to 
be the maximum homosexuals deserved or could reasonably expect. 
We were proved totally mistaken. Decriminalisation made it possible 
for homosexuals to organise openly into a powerful lobby, and it thus 
became a mere platform from which further demands were launched. 
Next followed demands for equality, in which homo- 

Is there an alternative to God? / 29 

sexuality was officially placed on the same moral level as standard 
forms of sexuality, and dismissal of identified homosexuals from sens- 
itive positions, for instance in schools, children's homes etc., became 
progressively more difficult. This was followed in turn by demands 
not merely for equality but privilege: the appointment, for instance, of 
homosexual quotas in local government, the excision from school text- 
books and curricula, and university courses, passages or books or au- 
thors they found objectionable, special rights to proselytise, and not 
least the privilege of special programmes to put forward their views- 
including the elimination of the remaining legal restraints-on radio and 
television. Thus we began by attempting to right what was felt an an- 
cient injustice and we ended with a monster in our midst, powerful 
and clamouring, flexing its muscles, threatening, vengeful and vindictive 
towards anyone who challenges its outrageous claims, and bent on 
making fundamental-and to most of us horrifying-changes to civilised 
patterns of sexual behaviour. 

Here indeed we have sexual politics in action. And, as with other al- 
ternatives to God, the result is not human happiness, but human misery. 
The homosexual community, as they now styled themselves, by their 
reckless promiscuity during the 1970s and 1980s, helped to spread 
among their members the fearful scourge of AIDS, a killer disease of a 
peculiarly horrible nature, for which there is no cure, and no immediate 
likelihood of a cure. Nor are homosexuals the only persons to suffer 
from sexual politics. Venereal diseases of all kinds, some unresponsive 
to even the latest antibiotics, are spreading rapidly. So is divorce. The 
percentage of one-parent families, with all the misery that entails, rises 
remorselessly. The number of illegitimate births, another prime source 
of human unhappiness, is now over 50 per cent in some great cities; in 
parts of Washington, the capital of the Western world, it is now as high 
as 90 per cent. The object of sexual politics is supposedly hedonistic. 
What bitter irony is there! I often think of my old friend and college 
contemporary Ken Tynan, another figure I describe in my book Intellec- 
tuals. Marvellously gifted, world-famous early in life, he became a 
leading evangelist of sexual liberation. It was his religion, and sex was 
his god. He distinguished himself, if that is the word, by being the first 
person to use a four-letter word on British television, and later by de- 

30 / The Quest for God 

the first pornographic stage-show, O Calcutta! But the god he wor- 
shipped proved false and vengeful: his career, his private life, his health, 
all collapsed, and his end, at a tragically early age, was sad, lonely and 

Race politics, like sexual politics, constitute an alternative religion 
for some, and in many ways are open to the same objections. They begin 
with a legitimate demand, and then proceed rapidly to request, indeed 
insist on, unwarranted privilege. Positive discrimination is a moral evil, 
almost as great as its negative form, for by giving one person more than 
justice it must, by definition, give another less. It does not work, nor is 
it ever likely to achieve its objects, but instead, like all forms of extrem- 
ism, it arouses hatred and disgust, and countervailing forces. What is 
essentially wrong with race politics is that they are fuelled not by love 
and reason, but by fury and bitterness. How much more valid, and 
helpful, and likely in the long run to raise the condition of hitherto un- 
derprivileged races, is the Christian teaching that all men and women 
are equal in the sight of God. It is the true multiracialism, just as it is 
the true sexuality, and-dare I say it?-the true socialism. 

It is possible to detect the same incipient signs of extremism in other 
items on the new radical agenda. Environmentalism, for instance, starts 
from the sound premise that the earth is our heritage and our respons- 
ibility, and that we must conserve it for our progeny. That, indeed, has 
always been orthodox Christian doctrine, which teaches that people 
have no absolute rights of possession and that all is on leasehold from 
their maker. But environmental politics can degenerate into a new form 
of pantheism, indeed of paganism, in which notions like Mother Earth 
assume spiritual and mystic significance, and we are in danger-rather 
like the Nazis, themselves notable Greens in their origins-of reverting 
to primitive patterns and, like our distant ancestors, worshipping woods 
and rocks and rivers and animals. I see somewhat similar dangers in 
the developing movement of health politics, a new name for what used 
to be called eugenics. The quest for health at almost any cost character- 
ised the inter-war period and was particularly marked in totalitarian 
societies. Stalin treated his opponents as insane, and locked them up 
in psychiatric hospitals. Hitler murdered the insane, to improve the 
stock of his race. 

Is there an alternative to God? / 31 

and when this practice was abandoned in response to Christian pres- 
sure-the only success the churches ever had in deflecting him from a 
policy-he used the death laboratories thus prepared as a pilot project 
for the 'final solution' of the 'Jewish problem'. We do not yet murder 
the insane-perhaps we never will-but we slaughter unborn babies 
throughout the world literally in their millions. There are already 
countries- the Netherlands, for example- where euthanasia is on the 
verge of legality and is indeed already widely practised. In some ways 
health politics are already the most threatening item of all on the secular 
agenda which constitutes the contemporary alternative to God. 

But the practice of abortion and euthanasia reminds us of one import- 
ant point. It lies at the very heart of humanity's failure to find the altern- 
ative spiritual comfort and moral leadership which only belief in God 
can provide. These alternative secular systems can kill. They can do 
that only too easily: whether the six million Jews slaughtered by Hitler, 
or the twenty million Russians done to death by Stalin, or Pol Pot's 
massacre of a third of the population of Kampuchea, or Mao's prodi- 
gious mass-slaughters on a scale we do not yet exactly know-or the 
millions of infants we do not permit to be born at all, let alone live. All 
these system can end life, but they cannot prolong it. The greatest of all 
human problems-the problem of death-they cannot solve. The secular 
mighty of the world-the tyrants, the kings, the arrogant intellectuals, 
the gifted men and women who think they know all the answers, the 
clever dons, the brilliant writers-all alike are sentenced to death from 
the moment of their birth, and sooner or later, that sentence is carried 

The point was made with sombre brilliance by that great adventurer 
and writer Sir Walter Ralegh, on the last page of his History of the World. 
It was written in the Tower of London, while under sentence of death 
from his implacable enemy. King James I. The passage is plainly directed 
at this conceited king, once called 'the wisest fool in Christendom', but 
it applies to all who set themselves above law and morality: 

O eloquent, just and mightle Death! Whom none could advise, thou 

hast persuaded. What non hath dared, thou hast done. And whom 

all the world hath flattered, thou only hath cast out of the world and 

32 / The Quest for God 

despised. Thou has drawn together all the far-stretched greatness, 
all the pride, cruelty and ambition of man, and covered it all over 
with these two narrow words-Hic jacet -here lies. 

It is because sensible men the world over, at all times, have recognised 
and accepted the inevitability of mighty death, that they have turned 
to God to explain its significance. Without God, death is horrific. With 
God, death is still fearsome, but it can be seen to have a meaning and 
purpose and a hope. The great strength of Christianity has always been 
that it brings men and women to terms with death in a way which offers 
them comfort and an explanation. Of course, the explanation is not 
complete. How could it be? As St Paul writes, in his first Epistle to the 
Corinthians, 'For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to 
face'. God cannot be replaced, because only belief in him offers a 'then'. 
There is a famous passage in the first volume of history, and it is a great 
one, written by a member of the English-speaking race, St Bede, after 
whom I am proud to be named. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English 
People, he tells the story of how Paulinus first preached the new doctrine 
of Christianity at the pagan court of King Edwin of Northumbria, and 
in particular of how he gave the Christian explanation of death and 
what followed it. The explanation has always been clear and unequivoc- 
al; it was then, as it is now. And so it struck these simple pagans. There 
was a moment of silence, and then a wise old earl spoke. Life, he said, 
was short. It was like a sparrow, in winter, flying through the king's 
hall. 'It goes from darkness into the light, then into the darkness again- 
that is life.' 'This life of man/ he added, 'appears for a short space, but 
of what went before, and what is to follow, we know nothing. If, then, 
this new teaching gives us certitudes, we should follow it.' 

There is no substitute for God: this our own dreadful century has 
abundantly proved. But I do not myself think that belief in God can be 
demonstrated like some mathematical theorem. It cannot be proved, 
in the sense we humans understand the word. It is something we intuit, 
and accept, and something too we reach, or reinforce, by prayer. Those 
who try to find substitutes for God not only fail, and often bring down 
misery on themselves, they throw away something marvellous. Some 
lines from the Catholic 

Is there an alternative to God? / 33 

poet Francis Thompson make the point with enviable eloquence. 
Thompson was an unfortunate man, whose own life became and re- 
mained a mess; but on the central issue of the purpose of life he was 
strong and sure. We do not, he wrote, need to look for an explanation 
of our existence in the distant universe. Our quest for an alternative is 
wholly unnecessary, for the real thing is before our eyes, if only we will 
open them: 

Not where the wheeling systems darken. 

And our benumbed conceiving soars!- 
The drift of pinions, would we hearken. 

Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors. 

The Angels keep their ancient places;- 
Turn but a stone, and start a wing! 

'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces. 

That miss the many-splendoured thing. 

There is, then, no alternative to God, so far as I can see-so far as our 
twentieth-century experience teaches us. But that is only the first step 
on our quest. If our need for God is such that no alternative which hu- 
man ingenuity can devise will satisfy us, what is the nature of this 
enormously important and essential being? Can we in fact know God, 
describe him, define him? 


What is God, then? 

Most of us believe in some kind of God, at any rate part of the time, but 
what do we mean by this? What is the nature of this God we half-believe 
in, occasionally? Is he truly omnipotent, ubiquitous, ever-present, 
watching our every move, privy to our most intimate thought? Or is 
he remote, distant, one who has set the universe in motion but thereafter 
holds his hand until he decides that time must have a stop? Or is he 
something in between these two extremes, or something quite different 
from any of these possibilities, something so remote from our imagina- 
tions that no writer on the subject-and there have been countless thou- 
sands-has even begun to conjure him up in words or images? 

Some people today take the view that everyone is entitled to construct 
his or her own personal image of God, and worship accordingly. 
Throughout most of history those set in authority over us have denied 
this individual freedom. They have insisted on having an official state 
religion, or recognising an official church, and commanded all those 
subject to them to abide by its teachings-not least about the nature of 
the divinity. Rome had its state gods and official forms of worship, and 
then at the beginning of the fourth century AD it abruptly switched to 
Christianity, which soon became the official religion in its turn. Until 
quite recently, most states had an official church. One or two predom- 
inantly Christian countries still do, and nearly all Islamic ones-indeed 
some of the latter are theocracies, in which church and state are indis- 
tinguishable, and church law is secular law. In such regimes, the char- 
acteristics of the deity worshipped are closely defined by legal codes. 
That does not mean, of course, that all citizens accept such definitions 
in their hearts. 

Today, most Western countries remain, as it were, agnostic on 

What is God, then? / 35 

the issue of God. All the same, most of them-perhaps all of them-prefer 
their citizens to be God-fearing. Precisely what God is feared is second- 
ary, so long as he is feared: then, it is felt, citizens are more likely to 
keep the peace and obey the secular laws. In 1954, the phrase 'under 
God', as used by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, was added by 
Congress to the United States Pledge of Allegiance. Two years later, 
the device from the US coinage, 'In God We Trust', became the nation's 
official motto. Which God? God as defined by whom? In the United 
States, church and state are constitutionally separated and Congress is 
not empowered-indeed it is specifically forbidden — to lay down forms 
of religion. So the God in whom Americans trust is left undefined, 
constitutionally vague and mysterious. Indeed, at the time of these 
changes, the head of the American state went out of his way to insist 
that the precise nature of the belief was a matter of indifference to au- 
thority. President Eisenhower told the country: 'Our government makes 
no sense unless it is founded on a deeply-felt religious faith-and I don't 
care what it is.' 

That frank statement raised some eyebrows at the time, and even a 
few titters among intellectuals, who had a low opinion of Eisenhower 
anyway. How, they asked, could a man seriously lay down that he did 
not care what people believed so long as they believed it strongly 
enough? No doubt the sentiment could have been more tactfully 
phrased, but it is obvious what Eisenhower meant, and what he meant 
made good sense from his point of view. He was concerned with public 
behaviour, not with private truth. As First Magistrate he was anxious 
to keep crime low and obedience to the law high, as Commander-in- 
Chief he had a responsibility to ensure that the armed forces were 
obedient and loyal, as the only public official elected by all Americans 
he must do his best to see that all citizens perform their duties and pay 
their taxes. They were more likely to do this if they believed in an ex- 
ternal power, higher and more permanent than the state, who was 
aware of all their shortcomings and would punish them in the next 
world even if they escaped retribution in this. That is what he meant 
by faith, and the precise form it took was a matter of individual choice, 
not state policy. All that Eisenhower was doing, in fact, was expressing 
his belief in religion as an effective form of social control. 

36 / The Quest for God 

Governments, then, prefer us to be God-fearing, but they do not, as 
a rule, go any further into the kind of God we are to fear. They leave 
that to us. But how do we set about inquiring into the nature of God? 
That is a question no one, not even the most acute theologian-or all the 
theologians put together-has ever been able to answer. It has often 
struck me that the two most important questions about existence-is 
there a God and what happens after our death?-are not only unanswered 
but probably unanswerable. Ever since they came into existence and 
acquired self-consciousness, human beings have known they are sure 
to die. Thus they have been speculating about what happens after death 
for about 250,000 years, and they are no closer to an answer today than 
they were a quarter of a million years ago. In that respect, human 
knowledge has not advanced one iota. It is the same with God-whether 
he exists and, if so, what kind of being he is. The savage from the Early 
Stone Age, or even earlier, is as well informed on this point as we are. 
His intuition, his guess, is as good as ours, perhaps better. We can spend 
a lifetime in a library, studying theology, but at the end of it all we have 
is knowledge of what men and women have thought about God. This 
undoubtedly has a certain value, possibly great value, but it is not em- 
pirical knowledge about the subject itself. 

Recently, an American scholar. Jack Miles, produced a book which 
he called God: a Biography. This fascinating study involved a careful 
reading of the Bible using the techniques and the spirit of a literary ex- 
egetist studying, say, a play by Sha kespea re-Hamlet, for instance. Such 
an approach can dig an astonishing amount out of the text, as the 
writings of A. C. Bradley on Shakespeare's tragedies show. Miles notices 
a lot of things about the God of the Bible, notably the way in which he 
changes as the Old Testament proceeds. For instance, when the Bible 
opens, in the Book of Genesis, God is talkative: so talkative that he talks 
to himself because there is no one else to talk to-he has not created them 
yet. He remains talkative for a long time, conversing with various of 
his creatures, laying down his commandments and other instructions 
in considerable detail and communing with his prophets at length. Then 
a change comes with the Book of Job. During it, at a certain point, he 
ceases to speak, though he continues, of course, to do things. After the 
Book of Job, he scarcely speaks ever 

What is God, then? / 37 

again, though sometimes his earlier commands are reiterated. He be- 
comes a Silent God. In the New Testament he speaks once, to say, 'This 
is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.' Thereafter, Jesus Christ 
talks, a great deal, as though the Father, feeling his age, had decided to 
hand over the firm, or the government, or whatever the concern is, to 
his son and heir, who would henceforth speak for him. 

Miles notices that God appears to age in the course of the Bible. 
Equally significant, he becomes more mysterious and remote. In the 
early books he is active, often visible, doing things as well as talking, 
showing himself, brisk and proud of his works. At one point, in the 
Book of Deuteronomy, he even insists, almost irritably, that all his 
commands are perfectly plain and that there is no excuse for any Israelite 
who does not understand and follow them. But slowly he begins to veil 
himself. Not only does he age, and his beard grow-he changes from the 
powerfully athletic God of Michelangelo to the Ancient of Days por- 
trayed by William Blake-but he retreats into the mist and half-light, and 
ascends into the distant empyrean. He himself, as it were, undergoes 
an apotheosis from a God-of-this-world into an infinitely distant being, 
about whom we suddenly seem to know nothing. 

All this is interesting, but the only real information it conveys is about 
the imaginations of ancient Israelite historians, poets and theologians. 
It tells us that, as they became more sophisticated, they ceased to anthro- 
pomorphise God, equipping him with all kinds of human characteristics, 
such as pride, boastfulness, irritation and anger, vengefulness and for- 
giveness. Instead, they confessed their inability to visualise God with 
any conviction and pushed him further and further up and indeed off 
the stage, so that he is merely a remote presence in the wings, and is 
eventually written out of the script almost entirely. 

Then, suddenly, God's son makes his appearance. He is not just an- 
thropomorphised but is actually man, a real man, 'begotten not made', 
as the Nicene Creed says, born of woman, who grew up in a specific 
place, Palestine, preached, suffered and died. With the New Testament, 
human interest switches from God the Father, now wrapped in impen- 
etrable mystery, and concentrates on his son, who is completely human- 
ised, while remaining divine. At this point we come to the great parting 
of the ways between the 

38 / The Quest for God 

Jewish religion, which remains strictly monotheistic, concentrating ex- 
clusively on the remote and mysterious original God, and the followers 
of the New Testament, who call themselves Christians, quite rightly, 
because their focus is on the human and tangible and visual form of 
Jesus Christ, the Son. As Christ is a historical figure, as well as possess- 
ing a human nature, it is possible to discover a lot about him, knowledge 
of an empirical nature, and to imagine a great deal more, so that Christ 
becomes a very real person in the minds of men and women. He is in- 
deed 'made flesh and dwells among us', and this helps to explain why 
Christianity spread so rapidly across the world and is still a living thing 
for a billion human beings, while Judaism remained the religion of an 
austere elite, who can get by without anthropomorphic props. However, 
on the question of the Father, Christians are in exactly the same position 
as the Jews-God is indefinable, invisible, unknowable, and in the last 
resort almost unimaginable. 

Almost unimaginable-but not quite. Whether we like it or not, we do 
exercise our imaginations about God and produce pictures in our minds. 
Bertrand Russell, albeit an atheist, told me he had an image of God in 
his head, a relic of childhood which he could not quite drive away-a 
rather frightening image. A. J. Ayer, again, tried to conjure up notions 
of God, if only to dismiss them: he told me this was routine procedure 
for a professional philosopher, but it may be that he could not help it. 
I dare say the redoubtable atheist leader Professor Dawkins also has 
his personal image of God, just as we envisage what Dagon looked like 
or Thor or Jupiter. Indeed, it is hard not to do so: artists have created 
so many images of this kind for us that it is beyond our power, even if 
we wished, to sweep our minds clear of them. In one sense, then, we 
are stuck with God. My personal image of God has not changed much 
since I was a child, and I suspect this is true of most people. 

The process of reasoning comes in, however, when we speculate not 
on God's appearance or being, but upon his doing-his power, his 
activity, his function. Here there are huge areas of disagreement. A.P. 
Herbert, the English MP and writer, used to tell a story about H. G. 
Wells, who was a lifelong atheist, and the novelist Arnold Bennett, a 
wise old bird who reserved judgment on such matters. Herbert had a 
house alongside the Thames, from which the Oxford and Cambridge 
boat-race could be splendidly 

What is God, then? / 39 

seen, and every year he gave a party so that friends could watch it from 
his garden. On one such occasion Wells, surveying the immense throng 
of people, turned to Bennett and said, 'Look at those numbers-how can 
you say there is a God?' Bennett replied, 'Oh, he is not dismissed so 
easily as that.' Wells thought that the infinity of human beings who 
have come into existence since the world began, and who may be infin- 
itely exceeded by those still to come, was quite beyond the power of 
any supreme being to cope with, especially if he inquires closely into 
the behaviour of each and every one of them, to decide whether they 
are to be saved. Bennett, on the other hand, thought that, if we endow 
God with supernatural powers, it is not for us to set a limit to them or 
to deny his ability to manage mere numbers, however great. 

It seems to me that Bennett had logic on his side, and that Wells was 
thinking in terms of gods in the Greek sense, or demi-gods, rather than 
the Almighty God who created the universe out of nothing. A God with 
vast but still restricted powers makes no sense at all to me. If there are 
things God cannot do, then he is not God. Of course, there may be plenty 
of things he does not choose to do. Many people, perhaps taking their 
cue from the later books of the Bible, where God is increasingly remote 
and mysterious-not exactly supine but, on the whole, a God who lets 
events take their course-believe God is reluctant to interfere with his 
creation, though not unmindful of it, and watchful, and reserving his 
right to intervene if it is his pleasure. Such a one was George Washing- 
ton. He was, so far as I can see, a characteristic late eighteenth-century 
deist, who felt-as Newton and Locke had taught-that God designed the 
world and set it in motion but did not normally fiddle with the operating 
machinery of events. As president, too, presiding over a constitution 
which separated church and state, Washington was most reluctant to 
invoke the deity. But in his Farewell Address to Congress, perhaps the 
most considered and sincere statement of his general views, he did in- 
dicate his belief that the new country was in the special care of divine 
providence and that, provided its citizens behaved themselves honour- 
ably, God would not allow the nation to founder. 

This is a view many share: a God who is watchful, all-seeing, but 
who seldom interferes. Abraham Lincoln's concept of God 

40 / The Quest for God 

was similar. After his death, his widow said he never felt he belonged 
to any church, and he clearly had difficulty in believing in a personal 
God of any kind. On the other hand, his love of righteousness, which 
went to the very foundation of his being, would not allow him to envis- 
age a universe in which there was no ultimate power of good, and in 
which frail human beings were abandoned to moral anarchy and blind 
events. His letters and papers before and during the Civil War are fas- 
cinating not least because he was struggling within himself to know to 
what extent he could rely upon or be guided by a divine providence. 
Distinguishing between Hellenic and Hebrew philosophy, St Paul says: 
'The Greeks ask for a reason, the Jews look for a sign.' In this sense 
Lincoln was with the Hebrews: he was always looking for a sign, espe- 
cially in the anxious times leading up to the public Emancipation of the 
Slaves. He would not allow himself to think that God awarded victories 
or inflicted defeats. He specifically said, 'God is not on our side-but I 
hope we are on his side.' But he hankered for the sign of righteousness 
and he evidently felt that God-or whatever he was-did sometimes speak 
clearly to his creatures, albeit rarely. 

President McKinley went further. He thought the president actually 
had a right, perhaps even a duty, before taking a momentous decision, 
to implore the Almighty for guidance, and that if the president so 
prayed, in all sincerity, that guidance would be provided. Shortly after 
the United States annexed the Philippines, he told a delegation to the 
White House how he reached that decision: 

I am not ashamed to tell you. Gentlemen, that I went down on my 
knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance that one 
night. And one night late it came to me this way. . .There was nothing 
left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos and 
uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the 
very best we could with them, as our fellow men for whom Christ 
also died. 

I suspect that most presidents have, in practice, behaved from time to 
time as McKinley did. Any man or woman who exercises huge powers, 
and whose decisions may send young men to their deaths, or whose 
failure to take the right decisions will imperil the entire country of which 
they have charge, will most probably 

What is God, then? / 41 

turn to God for guidance on momentous occasions, even if their belief 
in a deity, in normal times, is a little shaky or vague. Harold Macmillan 
told me he prayed in this way, when he was prime minister; and so too 
did Margaret Thatcher. Probably democratic leaders, who feel their 
responsibilities acutely, come into the same category as soldiers before 
an action and sailors in bad weather-they have a deformation professionelle 
in favour of belief. Most people, I imagine, would want it that way. I 
always found it oddly reassuring when Nikita Khrushchev, who as 
ruler of the Soviet Union was an atheist by definition, brought God into 
his utterances, as he often did. And the great majority of us would prefer 
our rulers to pray for guidance before taking an important decision, 
rather than rely simply on secular considerations. It is always better to 
have God in the equation than left out of it. That is a natural feeling: 
we are more comfortable with God than without him. When Dr Johnson 
finished the last piece of much-retarded copy for his infinitely delayed 
Dictionary, he said to the boy who had delivered it to the printer, 'Well, 
boy, and what did he say to you?' 'He said. Sir, "Thank God I have 
done with him.'" On which Dr Johnson commented, 'I am glad that he 
thanks God for anything.' It is not only reassuring that we ourselves 
feel God is there; it is doubly reassuring that others, too, feel he is there. 

On the other hand, there are many who feel that God, while indis- 
pensable in great matters, is too mighty to trouble himself about small 
ones, and that it is quite wrong to expect him to do so. We are reassured 
to hear that the president prays for guidance over Bosnia. But if we 
heard that he prayed for guidance on whom to invite to a White House 
dinner, our reactions would be mixed. We might think we had a reli- 
gious fanatic in charge: worse, a man suffering from religious mania. 
There is an old legal saying 'De minimis non curat lex'- the law does not 
concern itself with trivial matters. Many assume this applies equally, 
or even a fortiori, to God. My wife Marigold takes this view. When I 
explain to her that I am worried about what God may think about an 
article I am writing-the subject being important to me but not, perhaps, 
to many other people-she exclaims in exasperation, 'God has better 
things to do than worry about thatV 

There is a common variant on this approach which sees God as absent- 
minded, or at any rate as an authority who does not 

42 / The Quest for God 

necessarily take note of everything his creatures are doing or not doing. 
This is particularly favoured by the timid and humble. A friend of mine 
quotes her aunt, a self-effacing lady with a difficult and sometimes 
neglectful husband, who said on one occasion, 'Things are going so 
well. Alfred is so attentive and he hasn't got anyone else at present. The 
farm is paying its way. None of the children is giving trouble. Honestly, 
I'd get down on my knees and thank God, but I'm afraid of drawing 
attention to myself.' 

We have here, of course, more anthropomorphising. If God is indeed 
Almighty then he is certainly all-seeing too, and his eye had been on 
the self-effacing aunt throughout. It is less likely that he should be inat- 
tentive than that he should be impatiently awaiting her thanks. And 
equally, an all-powerful God is not bound by stuff about de minimis. 
Nor is his time limited. God is not a busy Chief Executive Officer of the 
Universe, who cannot be bothered with this or that. He has, quite liter- 
ally, all the time in the world. It is not for us to say what he considers 
trivial. Probably he does not think anything is trivial, any more than 
he makes distinctions between the moral behaviour of an emperor and 
a shoe-black. It is far more likely that everything is important to God 
than that he is guided by what we think important. 

We have to anthropomorphise God to some extent because there is 
no other way, in practice, that we can imagine him. But beyond a certain 
point seeing him as man, or rather a superman, is misleading and 
dangerous, because he is not a man, and his powers are not those of a 
man multiplied an infinite number of times. We are particularly misled 
when we try to set limits to God's concern. There are no restraints 
whatsoever on God's ability to take cognisance of phenomena, human 
or any other kind. When it comes to quantitative aspects of God, we 
are probably safer to follow the analogy of a computer than the analogy 
of a man. It is already possible for us to imagine a computer of such 
size or power or complexity that it is capable of performing, almost 
simultaneously, more operations than the entire human race could 
manage, even if it took many years. But we are only at the beginning 
of computer technology. Plenty of people still alive were around when 
the first mainframe computer was built just before the Second World 
War and can remember when such things did not exist, other than the 
stately machines, made by Charles 

What is God, then? / 43 

Babbage in the 1830s, which are kept in London's Science Museum. 
What, we must ask, will be the power of computers made in a thousand 
years' time? Or in a million years' time? We cannot even begin to com- 
prehend their capacity-the number of operations they can simultan- 
eously undertake, the amount of information they can absorb and act 
upon. Yet God's power, in these respects as in others, is infinitely 
greater than that of the most advanced computer our descendants will 
design billions of years hence. So God will have no difficulty in concern- 
ing himself with the minutest details of all his creatures, until the end 
of time. 

Personally, I have always taken the view, and do so now more than 
ever, that Almighty God, far from setting the universe in motion and 
then letting the drama enact itself-as many think-is an ever-present, 
ubiquitous arbiter in all affairs. I may sometimes doubt the existence 
of God altogether, or rather push the fact of his existence to the back of 
my consciousness, but when I am thinking about God at all, I do not 
doubt for one second that he is privy to all my thoughts, let alone con- 
scious of my actions, and that everything about me is important to him. 
If I speak to him, he listens; if I pray to him, he considers; if I thank him, 
he is gratified; if I disobey him, he knows and notes; if I defy him, he 
is saddened; if I love him, he responds. Or rather, I should correct that 
last statement: I do not even need to perform an act of love to evoke 
that response, since his concern is uninterrupted and perpetual. That 
concern extends to every human being who has ever lived, and it does 
not cease with death and judgment. That God is conscious of those who 
have joined him in Heaven, or who are preparing to do so while still 
in Purgatory, is obvious. What is less obvious, but equally certain in 
my view, is that God continues his concern for those who have rejected 
him finally and so are in Hell-if indeed there be such creatures, as I fear 
there may be. There is no finality with God, and his concern for the 
damned remains, one guarantee that they will not be damned for ever. 
Again, it is not difficult for us to imagine God caring for a great and 
intelligent creature like an elephant, which has so many human charac- 
teristics, including a tenacious memory, and which has some kind of 
consciousness of the cycle of life and death, since it seems to venerate 
its dead peers or wish to lay its own bones alongside theirs. What is 
also less obvious, but which 

44 / The Quest for God 

I nonetheless believe, is that God is aware, and cares for, every single 
member of a swarm of locusts-that he follows the existence of each of 
these ephemeral creatures, however many billions of them there may 
be, and notes what happens to them all. They may not be conscious of 
themselves, but God is conscious of them. He is conscious of each flower, 
and each leaf and each blade of grass-every living and growing thing 
capable of separate identity. It is true to say, I think, that there cannot 
be any molecular event, any event at all, however minute or transient, 
in the entire universe, which is not known to God. He takes an interest 
in all things, because he is the cause of all things. 

Now this view I hold of God's ubiquity and all-consciousness and 
concern- which is also the view, I should add, of most orthodox Christian 
theologians through the ages, and of most Jewish theologians too-must 
in no way be confused with pantheism. God is conscious of all, and is 
in a sense everywhere; but he is not everything. He is outside his cre- 
ation, and must have been outside it to create it in the first place. I regard 
pantheism, the belief that God is everything or in everything, and that 
everything is God, as a most mistaken and dangerous belief. In a sense, 
it is the negation of belief, an escape, a cop-out from all the difficulties 
of theology. Spinoza, I think, became a pantheist because he was not 
prepared-as he would have been today-to admit, even to himself, that 
he was an atheist. He chose pantheism in the seventeenth century, just 
as similar sceptics chose Unitarianism in the eighteenth century-it was, 
in effect, a form of disbelief and a convenient half-way to open admis- 
sion of disbelief. Pantheism, it seems to me, is a mere tautology; it 
equates God with matter and really tells us nothing about either. It is 
also liable to promote various forms of paganism-gods as streams and 
rivers, woods and mountains. It betrays a feebleness of mind, an unwill- 
ingness to work out for ourselves what exactly God is and what he 
wants us to do. 

Of course the God I have tried to describe, who is all-present, all- 
knowing and all-involved in the minutest detail of our lives, is not an 
easy God to live with. In a sense he is an impossible God to live with, 
because it is beyond our capacity, in practice, to conduct our lives in 
communion with God at every second of our existence. Some of the 
saints, the mystics in particular, have come 

What is God, then? / 45 

close to it, at any rate for part of their time. But for the great majority 
of us, God enters our lives only occasionally, periodically-spasmodically, 
one might say-when we remind ourselves that he is there, watching, 
listening. We pray to him in the morning and in the evening. We may 
say grace before or after meals. We may give him a word of thanks at 
moments of pleasure or success or satisfaction, and we may call on him 
when we are frightened or longing or desperate. The rest of the time- 
by which I mean nearly all the time-there is silence or inattention or 
even indifference on our part, though God is always there. His line to 
us is perpetually open, even when we do not respond for long periods. 
For many, contacts with God are suspended for years at a time, some- 
times for half a lifetime. That is sad, it can be tragic, but it is not irrepar- 
able. When we will it, when we remember that God is always there, 
contact can be resumed instantaneously: there is no waiting, no proba- 
tionary period, no 'technical difficulties'. We can be back on the same 
footing in an instant. 

Now you may ask: why should it be that Almighty God, who is infin- 
itely powerful, should always be in the role of suppliant, as it were, 
while we mortals, who are infinitely weak, should ignore God for years 
at a time, then be welcomed back, like a prodigal son, the second we 
feel the urge to call on him again? The answer is that we are not talking 
about justice, we are talking about love. So far I have left out this key 
word. Nevertheless it is the key. The universe without God is, to me at 
any rate-and I think to most of us-unimaginable. God without the uni- 
verse is indeed conceivable, for God, being all-powerful, must be all- 
sufficient too. The universe did not need to exist at all. The only reason 
God created it was love. It is the nature of God to create from nothing, 
and in his imaginative genius he conceived of a universe which he could 
love, and peopled it with creatures who would have the power of 
choosing whether they loved in return. Without love, the universe 
makes no sense at all. Love is its creative principle, its sustaining prin- 
ciple and its energising principle. God's love, being perfect, does not 
need or even expect reciprocation, while delighting in it, so there is no 
symmetry between his love and ours. But clearly, the more we do recip- 
rocate, the better the universe-or at any rate that part of the universe 
we inhabit-functions. This is a very important point, I think, and I will 
try to elaborate it. 

46 / The Quest for God 

But first we must try to get a little closer to God, and his nature, and in 
particular we must attempt to discover what exactly the love of God 
is, and why he feels he must express it. 


He, she or it: divinity, gender and sex 

God's motive in creating the universe was to express his love, to search 
for reciprocation of love, and to this end he created free- willed creatures 
who are at liberty to give or withhold their love for him. This poignant 
and elegant scheme teaches us that God is a being but not exactly a 
person as we understand it, still less a person with gender. We are ac- 
customed to refer to God as 'he' and I will continue to do so throughout 
this book, but it is purely a matter of convenience and it does not signify 
that I regard God as masculine. 

Our distant ancestors lived in a world where brute strength was im- 
portant, and where the greater physical power of men, their skill and 
courage in hunting, and their superior daring and risk-taking, gave 
them an unassailable predominance. They were the masters. They had 
to be. There was no alternative way of organising society. We live in a 
world where physical strength is of rapidly dwindling importance and 
where intellect is all. Women are, on average, marginally more intelli- 
gent than men, albeit they seem less inclined to take risks and therefore 
less innovative. It appears to me probable that, during the third millen- 
nium, they will gradually attain a mastery over men in most respects, 
and then it will be necessary to organise society in a different way. But 
in the days when the human race was first exploring the possibility of 
divinity, and was assembling pagan pantheons, then moving to 
monotheism, society had a patriarchal structure. It was only natural to 
assume that the heavens were a mirror-image of earth, and had a patri- 
archal structure too. Of course there were female gods-often very 
powerful ones-but the head-god was almost invariably a male and his 
superiority was underlined by his marriage to the senior female goddess. 
Thus divine families repro- 

48 / The Quest for God 

duced earthly ones and the patriarchal principle was maintained. When 
first the Ancient Egyptians, then the Ancient Hebrews, started to wor- 
ship a single god, it did not occur to them that this god could be any- 
thing but masculine. When gods became God, they acquired an umbrella 
masculinity in this single persona, who absorbed the female attributes 
of the old goddesses. 

But of course all this anthropomorphism merely reflected the limita- 
tions of the human imagination. The ancient peoples found it very dif- 
ficult to think in terms of abstractions-most of us still do-and it was 
beyond their capacity to visualise God except as some superhuman 
creature. So God was presented as male, seen as male, made to speak 
as a male and to some extent even think as a male. But that does not in 
any way mean that he is male or even that the more sophisticated an- 
cient theologians themselves thought of him as male. It is significant 
that, even within the Old Testament, as it develops, God tends to lose 
his gender. In the process of becoming silent, and more mysterious, he 
forfeits his masculinity and becomes increasingly non-specific. Jewish 
theologians have always tried to avoid referring to God as He or attrib- 
uting any human, let alone masculine, characteristics to him. Gender 
is no more than a linguistic device, for want of a better. Christian theo- 
logians have been less rigorously monotheistic in this respect, as in 
others, because the theology of the Trinity means God is presented as 
the Father, and there is no getting away from the fact that the Trinity 
is a patriarchal concept. Women do not come into it. The Virgin Mary 
is needed to enable Jesus Christ to be conceived and born as man, but 
Mary is emphatically not divine, albeit she is miraculously born without 
sin, thus giving her a unique singularity as a human. (She is also as- 
sumed into Heaven, rather than dying, so both her beginning and her 
end are miraculous and non-human.) 

However, none of this means that Christians think of God as mascu- 
line, as opposed to feminine. Christian monotheism may be comprom- 
ised, as some think-certainly Jews think-by the Trinity, but Christians 
still see God as a totally different being to humankind, with no human 
characteristics at all. In this sense, their theology is exactly the same as 
Jewish theology. Indeed, God the Holy Ghost, the third person of the 
Trinity, is precisely the disembodied, non-gender-specific, totally im- 
material God of strict 

He, she or it: divinity, gender and sex / 49 

Jewish theology. God the Holy Ghost represents the love between the 
Father and the Son-is pure love, in fact-and it may be that this is the 
way we ought to look at the Trinity as a whole, at God as a whole. But 
most human beings are frail and limited creatures, not given the 
powerful conceptual intellects of philosophers, and it is hard or im- 
possible for them to think of God in this abstract way. They prefer the 
Father and so, I must confess, do I. 

There is no reason, therefore, why women should not refer to God 
as She, if they find it more helpful, and think of God as womanly. Female 
visual images of God are possible, even easy. I suspect that great female 
saints like St Monica or St Catherine have always thought of God as 
predominantly female, and that such an attitude has been common 
among nuns of many orders. But this is a matter of private choice and 
convenience, not a theological point. St Teresa knew perfectly well that 
God was neither masculine nor feminine. Women, and possibly some 
men too, are perfectly entitled to think of God as a woman if that aids 
them in their devotions, just as most Christians use images and holy 
pictures. They do not really believe God has male or female character- 
istics any more than they believe statues are divine. 

At the same time, it is wrong for feminists to press for changes in the 
liturgy to make references to God non-gender specific, and still more 
wrong for the ecclesiastical authorities to give way to them. Such 
changes upset most people, including most women, and are quite un- 
necessary. I am all for tolerance in religion, except when intolerance is 
absolutely essential. Here, surely, is a case of latitude, and for everyone 
to tolerate the susceptibilities of others. The theologians have made it 
perfectly clear-clearer today than ever before-that God is without gender, 
and we must see him as such if that is the way we choose to love him. 
But if it is helpful, it is perfectly permissible to see him as a Father, or 
a Mother, or both. Meanwhile, let the liturgy, which has acquired the 
creative patina of age, so important in our devotions, stay as it is. 

Now let us turn to what I believe to be a far more interesting and in- 
structive question: why did God, being himself without gender, create 
gender in the first place? This question is not often asked because we 
are taught by science that the masculine /feminine principle is essential 
to all generation, in the vegetable world let alone the animal and human 
world, and that 

50 / The Quest for God 

there was no alternative but for life to evolve in this way. I do not accept 
this. God is all-powerful and he did not need to plant the gender-prin- 
ciple in organic life at all. The material universe itself was created, and 
propagates itself, without gender. Stars do not marry or breed planets 
by fusing masculine and feminine elements. They expand or explode 
or separate themselves on quite different physical principles, which do 
not involve gender-dualism at all. That was God's conscious decision, 
in setting the laws of astrophysics. But equally, in setting the laws of 
organic life, he chose to introduce gender, and it is interesting to spec- 
ulate on what was in his mind. 

My belief is that there was a fundamental purpose in this decision. 
If, as I have argued, God's motive in creating the universe was love, if 
love is the ultimate organising and sustaining principle of the universe, 
if God himself, in so far as he has characteristics beyond his own self- 
sufficiency, is the very embodiment of love, then it is clear that, in his 
mind, one of the principal objects of the universe was the exploration 
of love to its ultimate possibilities. God himself is one, unique, alone- 
he has to be, in order to be all-powerful. But his very omnipotence im- 
poses limitations: the option of sharing power is not open to him. One 
purpose, then, of the universe was and is to explore such options by 
introducing the principle of power-sharing. This principle is most uni- 
versally expressed in gender, for by definition neither party to a 
male/female duality is potent without the other. Neither can love fully 
without the other, and certainly neither can create, can make their love 
flesh, without the other. Now God can create alone; his love can express 
itself in creating from nothing. But that is his unique power and he 
cannot share it with anyone else. In order, therefore, to examine love 
in all its possibilities, he had to create this alternative form of love which 
only becomes possible, and fulfils itself, when the two unequal parts 

You may say, indeed, that God created gender out of curiosity, as 
well as love (curiosity, of course, is a form of love). Singular love, like 
his own, has only one expression. Blindingly perfect though it may be, 
it lacks variety. Mutual love, on the other hand, as generated by the 
gender principle, has an infinity of expressions. Not only does it make 
possible evolution through natural selection but, in its higher expres- 
sions, it produces per- 

He, she or it: divinity, gender and sex / 51 

petual dramas-histories, comedies, tragedies. It combines endless 
physical possibilities with endless emotional possibilities. We accept 
gender, take it for granted, because we have never known anything 
else. But without it the world could not function. God, as I say, might 
have chosen to operate it on a different principle. But a world without 
gender, even if it functioned, would be stale, flat and unprofitable. It 
would be a form of living death. So gender supplies both dynamism 
and interest. It is an amazing thing. Next to the Big Bang itself, it is the 
most remarkable and ingenious of all God's acts of creation. It is the 
most fascinating too. Its operations and permutations, creating life, are 
more interesting to observe than the expansion of the universe itself. 
They have the further merit that, the higher the forms in which they 
exist, the more interesting they become, and will become. We are only 
beginning to explore the potentialities of gender, which are inexhaust- 
ible, in so far as anything is. 

Now what follows from this analysis of God's use of gender? Two 
things. First, we must have a special respect for gender: it is evidently 
very dear to the heart of our maker. It is fundamental, not accidental. 
It is essential to his purposes, not a mere means to an end, a purely 
practical device. 'Man and Woman created He them.' The Book of 
Genesis got it right with this direct statement of inescapable fact. God 
did not create human beings who, for reproductive purposes, had certain 
differences. I have often seen it stated-it is a point made for the purposes 
of feminist propaganda-that the differences between male and female 
bodies are minute compared to their similarities. That may well be so. 
But if it had been God's plan to minimise the difference between men 
and women, he would surely have created hermaphroditic humans 
who would have bred by parthenogenesis. But he did no such thing; 
he created male and female and he had good reason for making them 
entirely separate entities with quite different purposes and functions. 

Now I am not making an anti-feminist point. It may be well to say 
here that I am, in my own way, a feminist. I believe in the fullest possible 
participation of women in the governance of our world, which is coming 
anyway whether people like it or not, and I have always striven, in so 
far as it has been in my small power, to promote and accelerate it. But 
I am not an ideologue. I want to 

52 / The Quest for God 

have real women in actual jobs of importance, not to impose rules and 
quotas and positive discrimination in their favour. Still less do I want 
to introduce equality, except the only form of equality which is possible 
and desirable-equality before the law. Men and women are not equal. 
They are different. Their differences are their strengths, so that men 
and women together are more than the sum of their parts. And their 
differences are their glory too. The fact that they are different is essential 
to their creativity. Hence if anything I want to accentuate their differ- 
ences, emphasise them, cultivate and nourish them. I believe that this 
is the natural wish of most men and that, as women secure equality of 
opportunity-which they are rapidly doing in Western societies at least- 
this will become the overt, as it is instinctively the natural, wish of wo- 
men too. For there are, in fact, huge differences between the male and 
female sex, and it is plainly God's purpose that they should exist and 
fructify. So let us dismiss from our minds any merging between men 
and women. They are separate-and unequal-and will always be so. 

You will notice that, for the first time, I have replaced the word 
'gender' with 'sex', and this is quite deliberate. In speaking of the uni- 
verse as a whole, it is well to refer to gender as its most interesting 
generative principle. But when we come to human beings, sex is a more 
appropriate word because gender differences cannot be usefully dis- 
cussed without reference to human sexuality. Now we come to the 
second conclusion which flows from God's invention of gender. God 
is particularly interested in, and anxious to stress, sexuality, particularly 
human sexuality. It may be objected: how can this be so? Is not God 
himself sexless, at least in so far as we understand it? It is remarkable 
that, in the Old Testament, as opposed to virtually all other religious 
systems of the Ancient Near East, the cosmogony is sexless. God does 
not produce the universe from his semen, nor does he generate man: 
he makes both. It may be said that, in the Christian New Testament at 
least, God produces the Son by some kind of generative process in- 
volving the Virgin Mary, But sexuality, on God's side at least, does not 
seem to come into it: the Holy Ghost, an entirely non-personified spirit, 
is produced for the purpose, and all that Mary is told, by the further 
mediation of the Angel Gabriel, is that she is already pregnant. Further- 
more, it may be objected, God's son. 

He, she or it: divinity, gender and sex / 53 

Jesus, is in all the circumstances a remarkably non-sexual creature. Since 
he lived until the age of thirty-three without marrying, he could be ac- 
curately described, in terms of the society in which he lived, as a con- 
firmed bachelor, quite a rarity then. Despite all the efforts of blasphem- 
ous movie-makers, there is no indication whatever that Jesus had a 
sexual liaison of any kind. He has a taste for the company of women, 
even when matters of importance are discussed, he obviously attracts 
them, and he sympathises with and understands them-his rapport with 
women is one of the central themes of the New Testament-but that is 
as far as it goes. Jesus does not perform sexual acts of any kind. The 
Jewish God, and even the Christian God, is set apart from sexual 

All this being so, why do I say that God seems anxious to stress hu- 
man sexuality? The answer is that, as with his deliberate decision to 
create gender, his stress on sexuality is part of his divine plan to explore 
love to its ultimate possibilities. Human sexuality is a physical and 
emotional, even a psychic instrument, of enormous power. It can drive 
men and women to acts of madness and despair and enormous cruelty. 
It is no accident that the national myth-epic-history of the Greeks, the 
war against Troy, is set in motion by an elopement. The pull of sex un- 
derlies the whole of Dante's epic. The Divine Comedy, the most sublime 
work of art of the Middle Ages. Shakespeare, in one of his most 
powerful plays, Othello - later to be the theme of the masterpiece of Italy's 
greatest operatic composer, Verdi-shows two noble lives destroyed by 
sexual jealousy. Sexual desire is the energising mechanism of the most 
pervasive and often-elaborated European myth, the story of Faust, in 
one of its incarnations the most justly celebrated dramatic poem in the 
German language. Why did God make sexuality so powerful? Its 
forceful effect on both men and women seems disproportionate to its 
primary purpose, reproduction. In the animal world, let alone in the 
vegetable world, the operations of the gender-principle require no such 
enormous incentive. The vegetable world reproduces itself compulsively 
without the aid of sexual desire, and the animal world desires sex only 
to propagate. Among human beings sexuality has a life of its own quite 
apart from reproduction-often a death of its own too. It is a huge force 
unanchored in the urge to perpetuate the species. 

54 / The Quest for God 

or rather a force which can break free of this anchorage and roam the 
world raging, inspiring and destroying. Or, to vary the metaphor, it 
can become a loose cannon on the deck of human life. 

God created this force, and freed it from the exclusive demands of 
reproduction because, in his human experiment, he wanted to see the 
interaction of varieties of love. It is part of God's creative genius that 
the love with which he desires to fill the universe has infinite gradations. 
In its purest form, as it radiates from God itself, it is utterly selfless. It 
seeks no more than to express itself and will do so, perpetually, un- 
answered, even though it delights in reciprocation. In its least pure 
form, it is utterly selfish and treats the subject on which it is lavished, 
even if another human being, as a mere object. By giving his human 
creatures free will, God offered them all kinds of choice. The most im- 
portant one is whether to reciprocate his love, and how intensely to 
reciprocate it. The choice would not be genuine, and thus interesting, 
if the kind of selfless love provided by God was the only one on offer. 
By creating sexual love of great power and complexity, and by endowing 
humans with it, God sets up not just another form of love, which can 
attain sublime expression and which is akin to and supplementary to 
the selfless love which he desires to be reciprocated. He also sets up a 
rival to this kind of love-a rival to himself-and bids his human subject 
choose. He tells them how they should choose, but he leaves them free 
to choose differently. He thus intensifies the human drama which the 
universe came into being to make possible. 

We are not at this stage discussing the problem of good and evil-that 
will be discussed in the next chapter-but it is clear that once love, and 
especially sexual love, can find selfish expression, as well as the selfless 
expression of which God sets the supreme example, then we are con- 
fronted with love which has infinite gradations between good and evil. 
All these forms of love are natural, in the sense that God willed they 
be possible. But some conform to his purpose and some do not. Once 
we grasp this principle, many of the most difficult problems of moral 
theology, and the way in which the churches have tried to deal with 
them, become much clearer. In the first place, the Christian churches, 
and especially the Catholic Church, are said to be obsessed by sex 

He, she or it: divinity, gender and sex / 55 

and to devote a disproportionate amount of time and spiritual energy 
to dealing with it. In the light of what I have argued, I think it is right 
to do so. For sex among human beings is a huge force and can have a 
disproportionate effect on the extent to which we conform to God's 
wishes. It is a rival to God, often a successful rival. The church is sensible 
to take it with the utmost seriousness. 

Then there is the question of celibacy. On this point I think I will part 
company with many of my readers, especially my Jewish readers and 
Protestant readers. No matter; I must follow my line of argument to see 
how convincing it is. The universe is about love, and there are different 
varieties of love, and intensities of love within it. The most powerful 
and intense variety is God's love for us, which is entirely pure and un- 
selfish, and is given whether or not it is reciprocated. Clearly, our human 
love reaches its highest expression when it comes closest to approxim- 
ating to God's love. We can do this in more ways than one. When men 
and women love each other, they can do so selfishly or unselfishly, with 
many gradations in between. The less selfish their love is, the purer it 
is, and the closer to God's love for us. 

The love of men and women for each other, then, does not preclude 
their love for God-far from it. In fact the more they love each other 
selflessly, the more likely it is that they will love God too. Sexual love 
can be a rival to the love of God, but it need not be. In theory, indeed, 
a man may have a perfect, selfless love for his wife and a perfect, selfless 
love for God, both existing simultaneously, in fact reinforcing each 
other. But, since human beings are imperfect, fallen, unsatisfactory 
creatures, such a dual perfect love is inherently improbable, or at least 
very rare. Moral theology deals with the generality of mankind, not the 
exceptions; and God himself is interested in the generality of mankind- 
though he takes great interest in the exceptions too, of course. Most 
men and women find it difficult to balance the rivalries of love. Men 
and women may learn to love God by loving each other-some un- 
doubtedly do. But it is far more likely that they will love God with some 
of the intensity with which he loves us if God is without a competitor 
in their hearts and they can concentrate wholly on him. That is the case 
for celibacy, and especially the celibacy of the priesthood, of those who 
have taken 

56 / The Quest for God 

special vows to devote themselves to God's service and who have made 
a lifelong profession of it. 

It is objected that a celibate priest, who has not known human love, 
is not a fit person to administer to souls: he may be all right in a monas- 
tery, praying, but he is unsuited for pastoral work. It is particularly 
objected against the present Pope John Paul II that, being celibate, he 
ought not to pronounce, urbi et orbi, on such important questions as 
family planning, divorce and sexual sin. I must say, I find this a very 
feeble argument-one which, incidentally, applies equally to Jesus Christ 
himself, indeed to Almighty God too. If experience is the chief qualific- 
ation for preaching God's will on sexual matters, then the most de- 
bauched will make the best pastors, a manifest absurdity. There is more 
than one way of acquiring sexual knowledge and experience. The aver- 
age husband and wife, who remain faithful within marriage, may be- 
probably are-happy sexually, but they cannot be described as particu- 
larly experienced. The average celibate priest, by contrast, acquires 
through the confessional an insight into the varieties and power and 
problems of sexuality denied to most married couples, indeed to many 
psychiatrists. One old priest, who has been hearing confessions for half 
a century, said to me, 'The burden of sexual knowledge I carry is 
sometimes very onerous.' Pope John Paul II, when he was Archbishop 
of Cracow, was so conscious of the problems of sexuality that he set up 
a marital institute, serving the entire vast archdiocese, whose function 
was to work on the problems of sex, including unfaithfulness, divorce, 
incest, illegitimacy, venereal disease, prostitution, wife-beating and 
marital violence, and impotence. He put in charge of it a remarkable 
and saintly woman who had survived the horrors of Ravensbruck, the 
Nazi concentration camp reserved for women, in which some of their 
more bestial medical-sexual experiments had taken place. This women 
herself had been subjected to them. The work of the institute has proved 
very valuable, and has been widely circulated and imitated; it serves 
to draw attention to the seriousness with which celibate clergy, and 
John Paul II in particular, can and often do approach their pastoral 

Priests have often told me that the very absence of direct experience 
in sex, which can be confusing and lead to prejudices, can make their 
approach to dealing with the sexual problems of par- 

He, she or it: divinity, gender and sex / 57 

ishioners more objective and successful. But a point far more important 
than any of these is that the particular concentration on devotion to 
God made possible by celibacy also makes it far more likely that a priest 
can reciprocate God's love with its own intensity, and so inevitably re- 
ceive more in return. And the love which God gives us is the source of 
all grace and wisdom. The more we are capable of receiving, the more 
likely it is that we will take right courses and lead others along them. 
So what the celibate priest loses in direct experience of sexual love-and 
that loss, as I say, may not be great-he more than makes up in the wis- 
dom and patience and understanding God imparts to him. 

It is worth adding, at this point, that what applies to a masculine 
celibate priest applies just as much to a woman priest. I believe that the 
all-male priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church (and, for that matter, 
the even fiercer opposition to woman priests in the Orthodox churches) 
is a lost cause, and rightly so. God had all kinds of reasons for introdu- 
cing the principle of gender into the universe, but a desire to differentiate 
between the spiritual capacities of men and women was not one of 
them. Quite the contrary: the whole history of Judaism and Christianity 
shows that women as well as men are capable of the utmost expressions 
of spirituality of all kinds. There are those who argue that both Judaism 
and Christianity have suppressed the natural abilities of women and 
degraded their role in spiritual society. That is not my reading of the 
scriptures, either the Old Testament or the New. Quite the reverse. One 
of the most remarkable facts about the Bible-in some ways the most re- 
markable fact-is that it is history with the women left in. It appeals as 
strongly to women as to men for that reason, among others. In this re- 
spect it is without rival among the religious texts of the Ancient Near 
East, or among the secular texts too. From the very beginning, women 
are part of the Bible story, acting, reacting, talking, scheming, suffering 
and comforting, as well as merely breeding. 

Indeed, it is a curious and most significant fact that God, as presented 
in the Bible narrative, uses women to introduce into the world one of 
the uniquely human propensities-the ability to laugh. Homo sapiens is 
a laughing animal perhaps even more than he is a tool-making animal. 
Indeed, next to self-consciousness, the ability to laugh, which is of course 
a consequence 

58 / The Quest for God 

of self-consciousness, is perhaps the most important human character- 
istic. The earliest written mention of laughter in the whole of world 
literature occurs in Chapter 18 of the Book of Genesis, when God appears 
to Abraham as he sits at his tent door in the Plains of Mamre, and tells 
him that his old wife Sarah is to have a son. Sarah was 'well stricken in 
age; and it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women'. 
Sarah too was listening at the tent door to what God said, though unob- 
served, and when she heard she was to become pregnant she 'laughed 
within herself, saying. After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my 
lord being old also?' There are many striking things about this passage, 
notably the fact that Sarah associated sex with pleasure as well as with 
the honourable duty of a wife to bear sons. Notable also is the fact that 
she laughed to herself, indicating that humour, especially ironic humour, 
was already a woman's defence in a man's world. Indeed, both God 
and Abraham are annoyed to hear her laugh, God particularly because 
he interprets it as a reflection on his power to do the impossible-'Is 
anything too hard for the Lord?' God insists. As laughing is a form of 
womanly defence against overbearing masculinity, Sarah is abashed at 
being overheard to laugh by God, and there is an altercation between 
the woman and the Deity: 'Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; 
for she was afraid. And he said. Nay; but thou didst laugh.' 

The fact that God used the gender-principle, which he had invented, 
to bring into the world the laughter-principle, which he had also inven- 
ted, and that his agent in this was a woman, is an instance of the way 
in which God exploits the creative possibilities of gender. It also illus- 
trates the importance he attaches to women, and the stress he places 
on the ways in which they differ from men. Men learned to laugh too, 
but women laughed first, just as women, in the person of Eve, were the 
first to allow their curiosity to overcome their sense of obedience- 
something which God angrily deplored and punished, but with which, 
being curious himself, he also sympathised. God did not make men 
and women equal. He made them different, and each has gifts and 
qualities the other lacks, or possesses in a lesser degree. In terms of total 
value, it is impossible to choose between them. For all these reasons it 
is not acceptable that God should have intended only men to serve as 
his priests indefinitely. Of course it was natural 

He, she or it: divinity, gender and sex / 59 

that Jesus Christ, conducting his ministry in the Palestine of the first 
century AD, when women were discriminated against in countless ways 
and denied freedom of movement and speech, should have selected 
his Apostles-whose principal duty was evangelism-solely from men. 
But in every other respect he treated women with the utmost seriousness 
and it is evident that he believed them capable of understanding his 
message as well as any man could. He deliberately commended Mary, 
the woman who quested for truth and knowledge, as opposed to 
Martha, who put domesticity first-Mary, he said, 'hath the better part'. 
It is inconceivable to me, in the light of the New Testament record, that 
Jesus Christ would have denied today the right of women to serve him 
in any capacity whatever, as priest or bishop or indeed as pope. I believe 
I shall live to see woman priests in the Catholic Church, and my 
grandchildren may well live to see the first woman pope. 

God's doctrine of love, gender and sex, then, is inclusive. He does 
not prefer men to women, though he makes them very different. He 
does not prefer non-sexual to sexual love, though he sees, as we can 
see for ourselves, that non-sexual love which is entirely selfless is likely 
to be purer than the most self-effacing form of sexual love. But the cri- 
terion of purity of love, and therefore the acceptability of human love 
to God, is the absence of self. In the moral economy of God's universe 
of love, the conquest of self is the most valuable of all attainments-to 
God, and ultimately to ourselves. It is the key to all other forms of 
moral progress. And it is particularly the key to love. God made sexu- 
ality very powerful so that it would generate intense dramas among 
the human beings in whom his curiosity is infinite, so that it would be 
a powerful force for good, and so that it would be a worthy and hon- 
ourable rival to the non-sexual love he offers to mankind as the exemplar 
of all love. He also made it powerful so that it offers the greatest possible 
challenge to the selflessness of spirit he wants to encourage. Overcoming 
self in sexual love is supremely difficult. But it is the only way in which 
sexual love can become as pure, or nearly as pure, as the non-sexual 
love which God radiates. The rules of sexual conduct, as laid down by 
the churches in God's name, are strict, and necessarily so, because God 
has made the sexual forces within us so strong. But the conquest of self 
is more important 

60 / The Quest for God 

than adherence to these rules because they are means to an end and the 
end is the expression of a love akin to God's own. It is possible to ima- 
gine situations in which an adulterous love, or a homosexual love, or 
even perhaps an incestuous love-a love which violates the traditional 
rules-is more acceptable to God than a licit love, precisely because it 
involves a more complete conquest of self. That is a hard doctrine, but 
it follows logically from the love-economy of God's universe. 

Equally, it is hard to imagine a more complete moral anarchy than 
the one which reigns at present in the Western world in sexual matters, 
where selfishness in the pursuit of satisfaction is the imperative norm, 
where sexuality is completely separated from duty, responsibility, social 
need and communal harmony-as well as from reproduction-where, 
indeed, sexuality is separated from all forms of love itself, except self- 
love, so that it becomes the absolute negation of the love God extends 
to the universe. We seem to have set up in the West at the end of the 
twentieth century a sort of sexual antithesis to the universe of love God 
planned for us, in which the immense power of sex is directed almost 
exclusively to selfish and so to evil ends. Here is our little pandaemonium, 
when men and women behave like devils and evil reigns. And that, 
inevitably, brings us to the problems of evil in the world, and why God 
permits it. 


Why evil exists-and why we can 
distinguish it from good 

In this chapter I will try to deal with the problem of evil, and I shall 
tackle it in two sections. First I will examine God's toleration or co-ex- 
istence with evil, then I will go on to inquire why it is that human beings 
instinctively recognise evil as such, and have no real difficulty in distin- 
guishing between evil and good. These two questions are interconnec- 
ted, but neither is easy to unravel, and I shall not be at all surprised if 
I fail to carry many readers with me: I myself am fumbling my way. 

God's evident willingness to permit evil to exist has been a stumbling- 
block to many throughout history. If God is infinitely good, and infin- 
itely powerful too, why should evil exist at all, when it is within his 
capacity to eliminate it once and for all? Or, since he is the author of all 
creation, why did he bring evil into existence in the first place? This has 
always worried people, ever since they learned to think clearly for 
themselves about great issues. The Brahmins pondered it, and the early 
Buddhists, and the Manichees-the last saw the world as a dualism, a 
mighty struggle between good and evil forces. Most of the Asian reli- 
gions explain evil by introducing an element of pantheism. Plato and 
the Stoics produced other solutions. But none of these systems of 
thought will allow, as Jews and Christians do, that God is absolutely 
all-powerful, and therein lies the real difficulty. 

I suspect that the problem of evil drives more thoughtful people away 
from religion than any other difficulty. I know a case of a brilliant 
Catholic priest, who lost his faith and resigned from the priesthood, 
and then married and pursued a secular career, entirely because he 
could not reconcile the existence of God with the existence of nuclear 
weapons. I cannot follow his line of reasoning at all, though I respect 
it. More common are those sensitive and 

62 / The Quest for God 

imaginative souls who know of a case where an innocent small child- 
perhaps their own-has died in agony from an incurable disease. They 
cannot reconcile this guiltless, pointless suffering with God's goodness. 
So they cease to believe in God at all. 

This is an old argument and it was presented brilliantly by the sceptic 
Pierre Bayle in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, published in the 
1690s, which became a kind of bible for eighteenth-century anti-Chris- 
tians, deists and agnostics. Bayle thought that the ubiquity of evil, often 
triumphant, made the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God in- 
credible, though he maintained that, religion and morality being inde- 
pendent of one another, it was perfectly possible for men to practise 
the private and public virtues, and so fight evil, even if they did not 
believe in God, or even if God did not exist at all. Bayle's arguments 
led the philosopher G. W. Leibniz to attempt a refutation by coining a 
new science which he called theodicy, literally the justification of God. 
In 1710 he published Essais de theodicee sur la bonte de Dieu, arguing that 
evil was not just inevitable but actually necessary because it threw into 
relief and brilliance the virtues of goodness, just as shade and obscurity 
revealed the highlights of a painting. Just as a great master, like Cara- 
vaggio, cannot reproduce three dimensions on a two-dimensional canvas 
without the use of shadows and darkness, so God cannot bring home 
to us the splendour of goodness, including his own, without the contrast 
of evil. 

This is an elegant proof, rather than a convincing one, and I am not 
sure that Leibniz and his many imitators and successors have succeeded 
in their object. The Book of Job, which for many people is the greatest 
work of art in the Old Testament, also tackles the problem of evil, by 
examining the appalling sufferings inflicted on this innocent and 
righteous man by a testing Deity. It certainly succeeds as art and it 
probably fascinates more people today than any other part of the Bible- 
an American friend of mine has recently written a whole book about 
it-but I am not sure that it succeeds as theology. The ending, in particu- 
lar, in which Job suddenly and inexplicably becomes rich and happy 
again, strikes one as weak and has led some critics to suppose it was 
added by a later hand, and that the original text of Job, being true to 
itself, ended in tragedy. 

Why evil exists-and why we can distinguish it from good / 63 

One Judeo-Christian explanation of evil, which is suggested by the 
scriptures themselves, runs as follows. Evil was created by the sins of 
the rebel angels, especially by the sin of pride committed by Satan or 
Lucifer, their leader. Once Hell came into existence to house them, evil 
was always an infection which could spread. When God created man, 
as it were to take the place of the missing angels, and made him without 
knowledge of good and evil, and set him in the Garden of Eden, where 
evil certainly did not exist, Satan was able to tempt Eve to eat the fatal 
apple, by which such knowledge was conveyed, and she gave it to 
Adam too. So God expelled them from the Garden into the vale of tears 
which we call earth, where evil in all its forms co-exists with goodness, 
and sinful man is left to choose between the two. 

This rather tortuous explanation is not of a kind to satisfy most people 
nowadays, and it has a crucial weakness. If God is truly omnipotent, 
why did he allow the rebel angels to rebel in the first place, and why 
did they-Satan being next to God in intelligence, as we are told-knowing 
God was all-powerful, think they could get away with it? A more 
plausible case is suggested by Origen, to my mind the cleverest of all 
the early theologians, who argues that evil necessarily springs from 
God's bounty in giving free will to his human creatures. It is an act of 
God's nobility to allow them to choose evil as well as good, and evil 
must exist to make the choice meaningful. This is a line followed by St 
Thomas Aquinas and others. Clearly evil and free will are somehow 
connected. But this does not explain the many evils in the world which 
have nothing to do with human choice, good or bad. The death of a 
child in a Nazi camp can fairly be attributed to the freedom of will en- 
joyed by Hitler and the members of the SS, and thus a sacrifice on the 
altar of human choice. But an innocent child dying in agony of meningit- 
is or buried alive in an earthquake has nothing to do with human voli- 
tion. Evil in man is easily explicable, in my view, and may well be jus- 
tified by the overriding demands of the freedom of will, which is what 
makes humankind so noble and extraordinary and-to God-so endlessly 
interesting. But evil in nature is harder to grasp. I suppose it might be 
said that God, having created the universe, and subjected it to general 
laws, feels it right to allow those laws to operate, and human beings, 
placed in the universe so that they can exercise choice. 

64 / The Quest for God 

have to take their chance with nature also, and some inevitably become 
victims of nature before they are rational and can exercise choices. 

I am not easy in my mind about this reasoning, however, and I must 
confess that my own answer to the problem of evil-my own theodicy- 
is much more simple, some would say simplistic. I honestly do not 
know why God permits evil in all its forms. I take Leibniz's argument 
up to a point and can understand that the existence of evil, both in 
nature and in man, makes the universe a much more interesting, if 
dangerous, place than a morally one-dimensional Garden of Eden. God 
is infinitely curious, just as he is infinitely everything else which is de- 
sirable, and curiosity is clearly one reason why he brought the universe 
into existence in the first place. God's curiosity in observing humanity 
is more likely to be stimulated and satisfied if humankind has to struggle 
both against the consequences of choosing evil instead of good, and 
against the objective facts of evil in nature-often overcoming or mitig- 
ating those evils by his or her ingenuity. But I do not pretend this is a 
complete answer. My instinct, rather, is to trust God. Our understanding, 
compared to God's infinite knowledge and wisdom, is so puny that it 
seems to me hazardous to set ourselves up in judgment over God's 
righteousness. God always has a purpose, and that purpose is always 
for the good and for our welfare. I am content to believe that no one 
who innocently suffers here on earth will be without full and ample 
recompense in Heaven. The tiniest child, crushed out of existence by 
blind nature or human wickedness in this world, will live to enjoy God's 
bounty and praise his justice and munificence in the next. No evil will 
go unpunished, no injustice unrighted, no suffering unrelieved in the 

Some people will object that this answer is too easy, indeed compla- 
cent. And they have a case. Our attitudes to the problem of evil are in- 
fluenced by our own experiences, and by the number and cruelty of 
the blows of fate we have had to suffer. I have to admit that my own 
life has been amazingly fortunate. I was the youngest child of a happy 
family and got more than my fair share of love. The only really devast- 
ating blow I suffered in the whole of my life was the sudden death of 
my father when I was thirteen. This occurred without warning while I 
was away at school, and it 

Why evil exists-and why we can distinguish it from good / 65 

was particularly hard to bear because in the previous vacation I had 
first got to know him well and was rejoicing in his decision to treat me 
as someone worth being with, sharing ideas with and consulting. Of 
course, there have been other blows too, but far less serious or sudden 
ones. There has certainly been nothing comparable to shake my faith 
in the justice of God. I have always been healthy and so has my wife, 
my children and, so far, my grandchildren. I have had a modest success 
in life and have lived throughout in a country favoured by fortune. I 
have my faith in God, more important to me than anything else. 

So I have good reason to thank my maker and I do, daily and most 
earnestly. I also have a fear, real if irrational, rather like the pious aunt 
in the story I told, that God may suddenly become aware of my good 
fortune, largely undeserved as it is, and decide to give me what I call 
a biff. This theory of a Divine Biff, for those who have been having it 
too good, finds no place in any volume of theology that I know of, but 
it has a morbid grip on my imagination. Indeed, I find it is shared by 
many other people, with whom I have discussed it. They too, when 
things are going undeservedly well, fear a corrective biff from the Deity. 

But this is a digression, and the point I am really making is that I may 
not be the ideal person to advance justifications for God's tolerance of 
evil, having had to suffer so little of it. Better to turn to the countless 
people who have led lives, objectively viewed, of unrelieved misery 
and misfortune, through no fault of their own or, like Job, have been 
lifted on high and then inexplicably dashed to the ground. Those who 
have undergone huge and continual sufferings, and have emerged 
without bitterness or have contrived to overcome their resentment, are 
the ones to justify God's ways to man, rather than someone like myself, 
who has little reason to grumble. But, having thus disqualified myself, 
I am still convinced that God sees infinitely further than the rest of us, 
that he has reasons for all things, and that in his good time there will 
be explanations forthcoming for all he does, or does not do, or permits 
to happen. Here, patience and forbearance are the great virtues-difficult 
virtues too and ones I in particular do not find it congenial to practise. 

Whatever the justification, however, it is a fact that God permits evil 
to exist. Therefore men and women have to cope with evil. 

66 / The Quest for God 

and this brings me to the second part of the problem. I said at the outset 
of this book that one reason why men and women tend to believe in 
God is that they are aware they have a conscience, and therefore assume 
God put it there. It is a remarkable fact that awareness of good and evil, 
and an instinctual feeling that good is morally preferable, even if our 
baser instincts do not permit us to prefer it, seem to be implanted in us 
by nature. This is what is called Natural Law: that is, the law fixed in 
nature by God the Creator which human creatures can discern by the 
light of natural reason. As such it is contrasted, by theologians, with 
the Revealed Law, such as the Ten Commandments presented directly 
to Moses by God and written in tablets of stone. Theologians argue that 
those commandments-except the one about the Sabbath Day-are to be 
found in Natural Law too, and are common to most societies, and that 
Revealed Law merely gave them added emphasis and specific termin- 

Until comparatively recently, the doctrine of Natural Law was accep- 
ted by most theologians almost as axiomatic. St Paul refers to it in his 
Epistle to the Romans (2:14ff.) when he says that the Gentiles, even 
though they have not been taught the Torah, or Mosaic Law, 'show that 
what the law requires is written in their hearts'. The Stoic philosophers 
of Athens in the fourth and third centuries BC believed in Natural Law, 
expressed in the law of conscience or duty. Stoics argued that God is 
the immanent, all-pervading energy which sustains the natural world, 
and the reason or Logos which is reflected in the world's order and 
beauty. So the good and wise man conforms to nature: that is, he lives 
according to the law of the universe embodied in the divine reason. 
There is an old tradition that St Paul was in correspondence with Seneca, 
the leading Stoic of his time, and it is evident from the very opening of 
the gospel of St John, with its memorable passage about the Logos, that 
it was pervaded by Stoic philosophy. Natural Law has thus been part 
of Christianity since its inception and that is as it should be, because 
Natural Law is a form of moral absolutism and therefore akin to 
Christian teaching, which I believe is true for all times and peoples. 

In more recent times, however, there has been less stress on Natural 
Law, and I notice, for instance, that there is no entry for it in the index 
of the new Catholic Catechism, comprehensive and 

Why evil exists-and why we can distinguish it from good / 67 

admirable though that volume is in most respects. This decline of belief 
in Natural Law has been accompanied by the growth of moral relativ- 
ism, the teaching that axioms of right or wrong vary according to time 
and place and custom: there are no absolutes, merely the norms of 
particular societies. In short, what is done, is what ought to be done. 

Now I have learned from the experience of our own times what 
reason and instinct teaches me also- that moral relativism is a great evil, 
one of the greatest of all evils because it makes possible so many other 
evils. I am surprised to hear intellectuals defend it, as they frequently 
do on radio and television, because it is my conviction that no one really 
practises in moral relativism. Or, to put it paradoxically, there is no 
such thing as absolute belief in relative morality. All who profess to 
accept relativism in morals in fact make exceptions-to steal, to murder, 
to lie, for instance, they admit is always wrong. Even the most insistent 
moral relativist finds, if he examines his conscience closely, that he ac- 
cepts a core of morally absolute beliefs. I use the word 'conscience' ad- 
visedly, for the existence of a conscience is incompatible with moral 
relativism-a conscience rises above relative values and insists on absolute 

Moral relativism has been the cardinal sin of the twentieth century, 
the reason why it has been such a desperately unhappy and destructive 
epoch in human history. Both the great evil philosophies of the century, 
Nazism and Communism, were morally relativistic; they argued that 
the 'Revolutionary Conscience' or the 'higher law of the Party' were 
superior to the ancient prescriptive moral wisdom of humanity, ex- 
pressed in the Decalogue-Natural Law and divine law. The arrogant 
insistence of these two totalitarian systems, that they made up their 
own laws and imposed and changed them at will, was too much even 
for a morally easy-going world, which is always only too ready to forget 
absolutes and sink into moral sloppiness. So the world rose up and 
eventually overcame the Nazis, and uncovered the bestiality of the 
death-camps, those ultimate symbols of moral relativism with their re- 
pudiation of the absolute doctrine 'Thou shalt not kill'. And the world 
also repudiated and isolated Communism, which eventually collapsed 
of its own hopeless implausibilities and inefficiencies. But that does not 
mean that moral relativism 

68 / The Quest for God 

has been banished from the world-far from it. The relativistic notion 
that what is done in any particular society is right, constitutes a slippery 
slope which is inviting and easily followed and eventually ends in 
complete moral anarchy. The decline of organised religion is an encour- 
agement to moral relativism. The growth of mass-communications-es- 
pecially television-is a compelling visual aid to moral relativism. The 
churches themselves, or rather the weaker of them, are inclined to in- 
dulge in moral relativism in the forlorn belief it will boost their declining 
numbers. So in the United States and Britain we have the pathetic 
spectacle of some churches trying to justify perverted sex-because there 
are such people as practising homosexuals-or divorce-because so many 
people do get divorced-or pre-marital sex-because couples who live to- 
gether without benefit of marriage are so numerous nowadays. On the 
other hand. Pope John Paul II makes himself unpopular with many 
people, especially those in the media, where moral relativism is partic- 
ularly common, simply because he insists on moral absolutism and will 
not bend the law of God and nature for a sinful generation. 

This is an old battle and will go on to the end of time. And of course, 
just as there is no such person as an absolute moral relativist, so there 
is no such doctrine as absolute moral absolutism. Even the most absolute 
rules are a little ragged at their far edges, as particular societies, while 
absolutist at the core, yield to custom or particular problems in some 
matters of detail. There are unresolved contradictions, too, in some of 
the most important absolute rules. 'Thou shalt not kill', good for all 
times and places, is qualified by the undoubted right of society to take 
human life in certain circumstances-in the cause of justice in civil society, 
for instance, and in the course of a Just War. The present pope is op- 
posed to capital punishment and believes it is hardly ever necessary to 
inflict it-and that it should be avoided at almost any cost. He is closer, 
therefore, to being an absolute moral absolutist than I am, for I believe 
capital punishment is necessary in some cases-many cases, as a rule. 
But such disagreements in detail do not undermine the general convic- 
tion that absolute morals are the norm and that society must abide by 
them. That is undoubtedly the lesson of history, apart from anything 

It is also, I would argue, the lesson of genetics. I do not think 

Why evil exists-and why we can distinguish it from good / 69 

the existence of the conscience in human beings, and their deep, basic 
convictions that certain things are always wrong, has come about by 
accident, or that these beliefs are just metaphysically or miraculously 
implanted in us by Almighty God, from outside as it were. I think they 
are part of his divine scheme, and always have been, and that they are 
written into the laws of the universe as surely as the laws of thermody- 
namics or any other of the unalterable axioms of physics. Since it has 
been right to call us humans or rational creatures, or even perhaps before 
that, it has been written into our genetic codes that we should make 
distinctions between good and evil, and that we should have a moral 
preference for good. That indeed is why we tend to adhere to Natural 
Law, and have a conscience and will ourselves to follow it-even if that 
will often proves too weak to combat other instincts in our genes. Our 
genetic coding and the necessity of absolute morality are closely con- 
nected and both form part of the divine scheme. I am not arguing that 
positive moral coding is confined to humans-it would be surprising if 
it were. Anyone who has been used to keeping horses or dogs, for in- 
stance, is aware of moral tendencies in these noble creatures-animals 
saints and sinners as it were-which reflect genetic codings and some- 
times malign genes, albeit at a cruder level. But just as homo sapiens is 
the rational creature par excellence, so he is the morally coded creature 
par excellence, and that is undoubtedly part of God's scheme for the 
universe. Ours is not a chaotic universe but a universe of laws, and they 
include moral laws. We ignore them individually at the risk of our im- 
mortal souls, and mankind ignores them collectively at the risk of its 
social health and even its existence. 


The God of beauty 

When I was a child, I always associated the notion of God with beauty. 
There were several reasons for this. The first was that, in our house, the 
only things which seemed to matter, which were treated as important, 
were religion, education and art. My father was headmaster of an art 
school, and a practising painter. He produced watercolours mainly, but 
also etchings, drypoints, lithographs and other kinds of prints, and at 
his schools the pupils were instructed in sculpture and pottery as well. 
In our house was an art room (it was always called that, not a studio, 
regarded as an un-English expression), where my father worked. Art 
and education were intermingled and both were sacrosanct. My father's 
very limited resources were primarily devoted to the education of his 
children, and great significance was attached to our schooling, and our 
performance at school. But even more important was religion: that is, 
attending church, prayers, holy pictures and statues, fasting and abstin- 
ence, keeping the commandments and pious practices. I became aware 
of this order of priorities at a very early age. 

The second reason I associated God with beauty was our local church. 
Shortly before I was born, our parish priest, an ambitious and energetic 
man, decided to build a new church and bought a virgin site, not far 
from our house. He consulted my father at every stage of this undertak- 
ing, from the original design, throughout the construction, and during 
the completion and decoration of the building. The church was con- 
ceived on the largest possible scale. No architect was employed, but 
our priest, sometimes accompanied by my father, travelled in Europe 
to look for models, and eventually hit on a compromise between two 
which had taken his fancy. So the church had a large Gothic tower 
joined to 

The God of beauty / 71 

a series of Romanesque domes, and three-and-one-half in number, the 
half-dome covering the high altar, and the other three the nave. The 
edifice was built of stone and in order to carry its immense weight, in 
a part of Staffordshire riddled with old mine-workings and liable to 
subsidence, a thick raft of concrete was placed under the foundations. 

Most local Catholics did not believe in the ability of the parish to 
carry through and finance this immense undertaking-and non-Catholics 
were scandalised by our audacity and pride. Even my father was wor- 
ried by the responsibility of it all, and by many other aspects of the 
design and construction. But our priest was a man possessed by a vision 
and he was determined to carry it through, no matter what. And he did 
carry it through, at remarkable speed. The main construction period 
coincided with the Great Depression, when there were thousands out 
of work in the neighbourhood and the evidence of dire poverty was 
everywhere. This made it more difficult to borrow money or to raise 
funds to finance what was known as 'the Debt'. On the other hand, it 
may be that it was easier and cheaper to get labour at this time, and to 
spur it to exceptional efforts, and this explains why the church was so 
soon completed. 

At all events, by the time I came to consciousness the church was 
nearly finished, and the internal decoration was proceeding. My father 
was much involved in this, and so was I as a small, wondering and rapt 
spectator. It was as though, in a modest way, I was a witness to the 
topping-out and the embellishment of the great basilica of St Peter's in 
Rome. As the church was so near, I was in and out of it many times a 
week. It was not so much that I was fond of it as completely dominated 
and overawed by it. It was, physically and in every other way, a huge 
presence in my life. My father often drew and painted it and so, in due 
course, did I. It did not occur to me, in my childhood, that God and art 
had separate existences, since both were so intimately united in the 
church itself. Only later did I perceive there was such a thing as secular 
art, and even then it seemed to be more a tributary of religious art rather 
than an autonomous entity. God presided over everything, it appeared, 
but he had a particularly close connection with any artistic endeavour- 
architecture, of course, painting, sculpture, but also brass-and ironwork 
for the church fittings. 

72 / The Quest for God 

stained glass for the windows, needlework for the vestments and altar- 
cloths, and various kinds of precious metalwork for the holy vessels. 
God was also somehow involved in the casting of the massive bronze 
bells, and the elaborate process whereby they were hoisted to the top 
of the great tower, so that they could ring out over the surrounding 
countryside, proclaiming triumphantly that the magnificent church 
had, indeed, been finished. 

The association between God on the one hand, and art and beauty 
on the other, was thus impressed upon me from the earliest age, so that 
I took it quite for granted. Hence, when I studied theology at school, 
what attracted me most among St Thomas Aquinas's various proofs of 
God was the fourth one, from beauty. St Thomas argued, as I recall, 
that we were aware, through our senses, not just of beauty but of degrees 
of beauty. It follows from this that there is an absolute beauty, and that 
thing or being is God himself. We love God, in this life, as the very 
epitome of goodness, which we perceive from his works and from the 
love for us which radiates from him. But we cannot-yet-see God and 
we thus have no conception of the absolute beauty which is him. That, 
I imagine, will be among the chief delights of Paradise, the contempla- 
tion of an effulgent and myriad-natured beauty, which is perpetually 
changing and modulating, yet permanent in its serenity and power. I 
suppose we shall all-if we get there!-be beautiful then, and one of the 
characteristics of salvation will be the acquisition of power to enjoy 
beauty in ways we cannot now even imagine. Heaven will be a celestial 
academy and gallery of living art, whose beauties will penetrate and 
envelop our very souls. We will walk among and converse with those 
Raphael madonnas and Botticelli angels and Michelangelo and Donatello 
Davids. But it is the beauty of God himself which will most entrance 

God, it is clear, gives us a foretaste of his beauty in the universe he 
has created. Its beauty, like its energising forces, radiates from him. 
Indeed, the fact that God rejoices in beauty is one reason why he created 
the universe in the first place. The universe, like God himself, is living 
beauty, constantly changing its form with fresh delights. It creates 
beauty by its motions. The starry heavens were the first intimations of 
beauty which penetrated the minds of primitive men and women, who 
had no possessions and had 

The God of beauty / 73 

not yet taught themselves to make things, but already possessed the 
power of ecstasy. During those long nights of distant antiquity, they 
lay on the ground and contemplated with wonder and satisfaction the 
movements of the stars. It was almost certainly then that they grasped 
what beauty is about-an intimation of God. The stars taught them that 
God was there, and that he was even greater than the stars because he 
had made and arranged them and set them in motion. So beauty did 
indeed lead men to God, as St Thomas later argued. 

The universe, from its inception-from that first Big Bang-has had an 
awesome beauty but, as it expands and develops, its beauties multiply 
and intensify. We can see this ourselves, as the number and variety of 
flowers increases, and we and nature together produce finer specimens. 
Human beings, always beautiful, become more so as new and healthier 
generations succeed each other. The girls are prettier than ever before, 
and there are more of them to catch the eye. The young men are taller, 
stronger, more handsome. The universe is so full of beauty that it is 
difficult for one limited human being to take it all in. We travel more 
than ever, and have far easier access to the splendours of the world 
than any of our forebears, but it is beyond our power, even in a lifetime, 
to absorb more than a fraction of what God has provided for our delect- 
ation. God is, if anything, too generous, as Martin Luther is recorded 
as observing in his Table Talk : 'Dr Luther, holding a rose in his hand, 
said: "Tis a magnificent work of God: could a man make but one such 
rose as this, he would be thought worthy of all honour, but the gifts of 
God lose their value in our eyes from their very infinity.'" 

God provides us, then, with countless models of beauty, and it seems 
to me manifestly part of his purpose for us that we should learn to re- 
ciprocate, by producing beauty ourselves. It is one important way in 
which we return God's love for us. We cannot give him power or pos- 
sessions, for he has everything of that kind already, but we can give 
him beauty of our invention, and he rejoices in it, however inferior it 
may be to his own inventions, just as fond parents enjoy the drawings 
of their tiny children. Artists of all kinds are dear to God. He endows 
them with their skills and, in rare cases, their genius, and delights in 
the way they make use of them. Woe betide an idle artist, neglecting 

74 / The Quest for God 

gifts!-a point Milton makes in one of his greatest sonnets when he writes 
of 'talent which is death to hide'. 

Some visitors to Rome, seeing the marvellous works of art created 
there under papal patronage, especially from the fifteenth to the seven- 
teenth centuries, deplore the expenditure of so much time and money 
and energy on mere artifice. They see the glories of papal Rome as 
materialism triumphant, sanctified secular ity, paganism enthroned. 
That is an arguable point of view and throughout the millenniums of 
belief austere souls have sought to praise God without any aids of 
beauty. But to my mind, and I think to most people's, to create beauty 
is one way in which we respond to God and praise him. To erect 
buildings and to adorn them with art specifically so that God may be 
worshipped in them is a worthy occupation for a pope and his cardinals. 
And it is no bad thing, incidentally, for an ecclesiastical ruler to have 
the physical means to overawe his secular rivals. Not long ago I was in 
Rome with Margaret Thatcher on a private visit, and Pope John Paul 
II kindly arranged for her and one or two of her friends to be shown 
the Sistine Chapel, reopened after the most extensive restoration in its 
history. It was a rare privilege to see Michelangelo's frescos without 
the perpetually milling crowd which fills the chapel throughout its of- 
ficial opening hours. It was a still rarer experience to see Margaret 
Thatcher, this Queen of Politics, this outstanding exponent of the art of 
ruling, quite overcome-rendered speechless, in fact-by the splendour 
of beauty brought into being by a genius under ecclesiastical patronage. 
She saw that the church can command, as well as the state! 

No pope or archbishop should be deterred from erecting monuments 
to Almighty God by mere difficulty or expense. We have to think of 
future generations, as well as our own. And we have to think what God 
himself wishes. The catholic ruler of a West African state has been much 
abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller 
in size than St Peter's itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the 
money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But 
it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. 
In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and 
always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something 
a poor man or woman can visit and share with God. 

The God of beauty / 75 

It was Wordsworth who pointed out that a poor man is just as capable 
of enjoying beauty, and putting it high in his scale of values, as a rich 
man. The poor of West Africa, who have little but their native pride, 
may well be happy to observe that their small country is capable of 
creating a cathedral on the scale of Europe's largest, and that the black 
African can pay his or her tribute to Almighty God just as munificently 
as the white Westerner. 

The 8,000 medieval parish churches which we still possess in England- 
the greatest single item in our national dowry of art- were built and paid 
for by a society most of whose members had few material possessions. 
They now constitute a monument to their generosity and magnanimity, 
which we will continue to use and enjoy so long as we have the sense 
to preserve them. They give us as much satisfaction as they give to God, 
for whose glory they were erected. And do not the souls of those medi- 
eval men and women, now in Heaven, rejoice that their churches, cre- 
ated with so much sacrifice, still sound forth God's praises? 

Early in the century, both the Protestant and the Catholic communities 
of Liverpool, a city then famous for its religious fervour, decided to 
build new cathedrals. Paradoxically, the Protestants chose a gifted 
young Catholic architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and he produced for them 
the design of a masterpiece in Edwardian Gothic. With prodigies of ef- 
fort, the work was financed and built, and finally completed in the 
1980s, long after sponsors and architect were in their graves-as usually 
happens in the case of cathedrals. But this marvellous building, the 
finest erected in Europe this century, survives to do them honour, and 
to honour too the resolution and faith of the Anglican Church in Liver- 
pool. The Catholics of the Edwardian age also chose a fine architect: 
the great Sir Edwin Lutyens, an Anglican by conviction but a Catholic 
by artistic sentiment. He designed a glorious church, on the scale of St 
Peter's, in the most sumptuous Baroque, to be built of marble. This was 
an even greater labour and expense than the Anglican cathedral, but 
the immense crypt was in due course completed. Then came the war, 
which halted construction. Some time after the war. Archbishop 
Heenan-later cardinal-estimating that the cost of completing the project 
was more than the Catholics of Liverpool could bear, decided not to 
complete it. Instead he commissioned and built a much cheaper thing, 
by a meretricious 

76 / The Quest for God 

Modern Movement architect, with a peculiar tent-like roof, which has 
led the jeering Protestants of the city to christen it 'Paddy's Wigwam'. 
The Catholics, who were barely consulted by Heenan in making his 
decision, now hang their heads in shame that they must worship in 
such a hovel, already showing signs of decay. They are indeed poor, 
but they would have found the money for Lutyens' magnificent basilica. 
I reproached Heenan at the time, as being a man of little faith. I told 
him about the church which our parish priest had insisted on building, 
against much advice, when I was a child, and how the money had been 
found to complete it. He expressed contrition, and maybe it is still not 
too late to resurrect Lutyens' ambitious scheme, for the glory of God 
in the dawning twenty-first century. We shall see. 

In the meantime, there can be little doubt that among the most priv- 
ileged of human beings are those who have the honour to erect a great 
church to God. They must be considered the most fortunate of artists, 
and dearest to their maker. Most, as I say, do not live to see their work 
finished, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being among their number. 
But there are exceptions. Sir Christopher Wren designed the new St 
Paul's, supervised its main construction, and lived to see it completed. 
This immense work brought him little material reward, caused him 
endless heartache and anxiety, brought him opprobrium and eventually 
dismissal, and received surprisingly little recognition in his lifetime. 
But at least he saw it finished, and thereafter he came once a year, to 
sit under its dome, to pray, to meditate and to rejoice. Those must have 
been cherished moments-both to him and to God. 

However, no good purpose is served by designating a hierarchy of 
God's favour for creative geniuses. All artists endear themselves to him 
by depicting his creations to the best of their ability. Painters are often 
genuinely pious men and women, despite their wild notions about the 
Deity. It is common among them to kneel down and pray in dedication 
before beginning a canvas, and kneel down in gratitude when they 
have completed it. Sometimes they have misgivings about their failure 
to use their talents exclusively to praise and explain God's works-thus 
Botticelli, one of the purest and most gifted of them all, came bitterly 
to regret his secular works, with their voluptuousness and riot. He is 
even said to have destroyed some. But that was foolish-as foolish as 

The God of beauty / 77 

iconoclasts who, in most faiths. Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, 
have gone around destroying works of art in churches, as vain, idolat- 
rous and blasphemous. It is not for any one or any group of us to decide 
that people have been wrong to worship God in their chosen fashion. 

Far more likely it is that God takes particular pleasure in seeing our 
attempts to use our skills to replicate the beauty he has created. God is 
the greatest of all connoisseurs. All my life I have been a landscape 
painter, after a fashion, as my father was before me. I now regret not 
having painted more, but I chose to earn my living by writing and the 
demands of that trade are exigent and for many years I painted little. 
During the last decade I have tried to make up for lost opportunities 
by painting what I see wherever I go in the world, even if I only have 
a few snatched minutes for a quick sketch. The results have been reward- 
ing far in excess of my expectations. Not only have I accumulated a 
large stock of sketches and finished paintings, from all continents, but 
the quality of the rendering has improved. I feel, increasingly, that I am 
painting for God, as much as for myself and my friends. God gave me 
this certain, limited talent, and I am serving him by seeking to improve 
it while making a record of what he has created in the world. To me at 
any rate, painting is prayerful. It is also one of the most innocent of 
enjoyments. And it instructs. There is no doubt that painting forces us 
to look very closely at what God has done and so to grasp the design 
of nature, just as painting a building gives us a marvellous insight into 
the intentions of the architect. Hills and mountains, rivers and waterfalls 
and lakes do not just come into existence haphazardly. They are formed 
over long periods by powerful natural forces, and studying them closely 
while painting enables one to understand these processes and so paint 
better. No one who spends long hours and days painting landscapes 
can be without considerable knowledge of the way God has made the 
world, and of the relationships between beauty and purpose in natural 
forms. For a long time I was singularly inept in drawing, and still more 
painting, trees, so that I almost despaired of them. But they are among 
the finest of God's creations-noble things, so full of majesty and honour, 
and so varied. So I persevered and made a special, painstaking study 
of their structure, and at long last I began to understand how God de- 
signed them, and how it 

78 / The Quest for God 

was their functional efficiency which made them works of natural art. 
So I improved and now take enormous pleasure in painting trees, albeit 
with occasional failures still. 

What I have undoubtedly neglected is the human form. I like to put 
figures in my landscapes, as my father taught me, just to indicate scale, 
and I am often ashamed at how poor they are. So I often tell myself that 
I must go back to life-class and really master the human form by 
drawing it patiently and industriously. So far this has not happened, 
and the months and years go by, and I realise yet again the importance 
of resolution and persistence and will-power in all schemes of human 
improvement. I say to myself now: 'I will find time to carry out this 
resolve, as soon as I have finished this book.' For who can deny that 
the human form is in many ways the finest of God's works of art? The 
scriptures tell us that God created man in his own image. We do not 
know exactly what this means, and it certainly cannot mean that God 
looks like a man in an ordinary visual sense. We are left with a mystery, 
but perhaps we can begin to solve it by studying and painting the hu- 
man form with the diligence its radiant beauties merit. There is, indeed, 
a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female variet- 
ies, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it-there is a 
connection with the divine. That was the spirit in which William Etty 
RA, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all 
his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing 
and painting human flesh-no English artist ever did it better-he was 
never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy 
right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud 
to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the 
presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry 
and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination 
to improve it. There is no better way to serve God. 

Studying the works of God and trying to reproduce them visually 
brings us close to our creator. It is one way to know him. But it may be 
that the musician gets even closer. The universe is an exercise in har- 
mony as much as in shape and colour and texture, and none can doubt 
that there are celestial sounds as well as visions. Then again, all creation 
is a series of abstractions as much 

The God of beauty / 79 

as a series of material realities, and these abstractions can be expressed 
musically as well as mathematically and algebraically. Composing, re- 
producing and hearing sounds of exquisite beauty and profundity can 
give us extraordinary insights not just into beauty, but into goodness 
itself. After hearing a great symphony, telling us, but entirely in abstract 
terms, of truth and justice and heroism, we arise better men and women. 
The musicians in the orchestra feel it, the conductor feels it, the listeners 
feel it. The mood may not last, but it is much to have felt it at all. It is 
akin to the lifting of the heart and spirit we experience at a religious 
ceremony when we have concentrated our thoughts well and meditated 
deeply. So music works on our minds, and God listens too. It must be 
a fine thing to have composed the music which has so held players and 
audience and so raised their minds to God. That is why, I think, Jean 
Sibelius told me, in the summer of 1949, 'to compose is often an agony 
but it is the quintessence of privilege too'. Many composers have been 
deeply religious people, humbly rejoicing in this privilege-none more 
so than Joseph Haydn, whose long, industrious and painstaking life, 
so modestly conducted amid so many difficulties and setbacks, is a 
model of artistic integrity in God's service. Or there is the case of Anton 
Bruckner, childlike and wholly innocent in his devotion to God, who 
spent so many hours seated at the organ, alone with his music and his 
maker, and then poured forth his prayers in vast symphonies, few of 
which he ever heard performed. His ninth, last and greatest he dedic- 
ated, quite simply: 'To Almighty God'. 

In contrast to architects, painters and composers, writers have a mixed 
record in God's service. They are so numerous and varied that it is risky 
to generalise in any way, but it is remarkable how many writers, in all 
civilisations, have tended to take a critical view of established order 
and sought to subvert it. It is probably the single most striking charac- 
teristic of the mind which wishes to express itself through the written 
word. Now, of course, in subverting order they may be carrying out 
God's purpose, and there are plenty of instances in the Old Testament 
where that is exactly what its more passionate writers are doing. But I 
have spent my entire working life among writers and I know very well 
that the cast of mind which they habitually possess, and which 

80 / The Quest for God 

harbours huge resentments of the world as it exists, is not necessarily 
motivated by selfless altruism. To praise God is not usually the writer's 
intention in picking up a pen or sitting down in front of a word-pro- 
cessor. More likely it is to express a grievance or work off a resentment 
or articulate a personal longing or simply to rage-in addition to making 
money, of course. Writers are sinful and fallen and unsatisfactory man 
writ large. It will be, for me at least, one of the great points of interest 
of the next world to see how God, in his justice, sorts out all the giants 
and pygmies of the pen. How will Voltaire fare? Some Christian polemi- 
cists write as if he were already in Hell, but I am not so sure. A man's 
writings have to be judged in their effects, if any, over many generations, 
and these may be contradictory and, in aggregate, difficult to assess. 
We may be sure God will do them justice, however, and this may often 
in the end surprise us. Where will he place Tolstoy, that astonishing 
combination of humility and arrogance, wisdom and madness, piety 
and destruction? He will have difficulty with Milton, too, who sought- 
so he said-to justify the ways of God to men and ended by writing a 
masterpiece whose hero was Satan. I do not know how Shelley will 
fare, he who professed atheism and practised a kind of exalted panthe- 
ism, who preached socialism and was a monster of personal selfishness. 
The fact is, nevertheless, that men and women have been uplifted and 
inspired by Shelley's poetry and become better people in consequence. 

How will God reward or punish, sanctify or damn the immense mass 
of gifted men and women who have given contradictory messages to 
the modern world? All will come up for judgment-the Baudelaires and 
the Hugos, the Hemingways and the Joyces, a mad genius like Ezra 
Pound and a calculating operator like Zola, the reckless like Rimbaud 
and the thoughtful like Emerson, the sinners like Byron and the saints 
like Chesterton. I cannot imagine how God will arrange Sartre and 
Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and Rilke, Yeats and Lorca in any order 
of sanctification or devilry which makes sense. But it will undoubtedly 
be carried out: therein lie the fascinating things to come. What evil have 
their writings done-then and since? What good-in their lifetimes and 
thereafter? The heavenly computers will whirr and deliver and the 
notices of judgment will be posted, and the writers, dishevelled, appre- 
hensive, ashamed or defiant, struggling or abject, will be 

The God of beauty / 81 

brought out to be given their laurels or punished, in front of all the 
watching world. 

But there are also those writers who have not sought to tell the world 
what to do, to create Utopias out of their own unaided intellects and 
incited people into trying to bring them about, but instead have simply 
set themselves to portray God's universe and his people in loving words. 
They will have a smooth passage through the storms of that tremendous 
judgment day. There are writers who, by their modest genius, or even 
merely by their carefully husbanded and honed talents, have sought 
chiefly to enable their readers to see God's creation with fresh eyes- 
have taught us to look, again and again, at the world around us and 
the way humans behave. To teach us about the universe, to encourage 
us to explore and value and treat tenderly all its manifestations and 
inhabitants, is a salient work of art in itself and an act of worship. Such 
writers are dear to God, and they are valuable to us too: for the under- 
standing and reverence we bring to the world around us is a salient 
part of our duty, as we are beginning to discover. Let us now turn to 
that aspect of our religious faith and practice. 


God's world-or ours? 

Human beings are ingenious and resourceful creatures and, being such, 
do great things, become self-congratulatory and suffer from hubris. Man 
must be perpetually on watch against the sin of pride, the real killer, 
of souls as well as bodies. The scriptures say that God not only made 
man in his own image, but gave him dominion over the earth and all 
that is on it. But the scriptures were written by men (and sometimes by 
women). Yes: I know we are taught they are divinely inspired: 'So have 
I heard and do in part believe', as Horatio says in Hamlet. It may be that 
God indicated what was to be put down, and the writer placed his own 
construction on it. The dominion over the earth and its creatures, given 
by God to man, was heavily qualified, more so perhaps than the Bible 
makes out. To begin with, it is not a freehold but a leasehold, and I 
suspect that it is one of the pernickety kinds issued by such conserva- 
tionist bodies as the National Trust. We must do this and we may not 
do that. It is a fully repairing lease and periodically monitored to secure 
compliance. God is a jealous God-there, the Bible was exact-and watches 
over his freehold with an eagle's eye and a tiger's rage and an elephant- 
ine memory. He knows from long experience that mankind is a bad 
tenant. Man is exceptionally wasteful and, until recently at least, rarely 
troubled himself with disposing of his waste sensibly. It is sometimes 
tempting to characterise homo sapiens as a rubbish-making animal. Ac- 
cumulations of noxious and disgusting rubbish appear very early in 
his discoverable history and are much older than cities. When cities do 
appear they are often built on earlier layers of rubbish, sometimes 
dozens, scores or even hundreds of feet deep. I am not saying that man 
is alone in making rubbish. In the Scottish highlands, for instance, I 
know of a large eagle's nest, in 

God's ivorld-or ours ? / 83 

part of the surviving aboriginal Caledonian forest, which is many 
hundreds of years old and whose foundations, high in the tree, are 
made up of the rubbish of many earlier nests, just like cities in antiquity. 
Many birds live on their own rubbish dumps. But man wastes things 
out of all proportion to his needs or consumption, and accumulates 
rubbish with terrifying speed and scatters it about him in the most 
careless manner. It is amazing how soon he produces and distributes 
rubbish, even in the most unpropitious circumstances. The South Pole 
and large parts of Antarctica are already littered with rubbish. So are 
the slopes of Everest. So, increasingly, are prominent areas of space. 

What is Almighty God to make of this rubbish-excreting and scatter- 
ing creature he has put in a position of trust over the world? There is 
now virtually no part of the planet so inhospitable that man cannot 
penetrate it and, if he chooses, lay waste to it. He already has a foothold 
in space and will soon be clambering about it freely, in search of raw 
materials and precious metals and stones, energy and power-all the 
valuables whose production entails rubbish in colossal quantities. Stout 
Cortes of the twenty-first century will soon be on his way in space, 
brave, greedy and messy. 

Now it is obvious that, while making purposeful use of the world 
and the universe is not only lawful for man but actually enjoined on 
him by God-that is one reason he created it in the first place- wastefully 
to despoil it or to consume it selfishly is sinful. The Judeo-Christian 
tradition teaches, and I think has always taught, that the Seventh 
Commandment, 'Thou shalt not steal', protects the world around us, 
as well as our neighbour's possessions. As we are leaseholders, we must 
not diminish God's freehold needlessly and without warrant. The new 
Catholic Catechism, which seems to me-on balance-an unrivalled com- 
pendium of clear-sighted moral theology and, for that matter, good 
sense, tells us: 'Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings 
granted by the creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the 
quality of life of his neighbour, including generations to come; it requires 
a religious respect for the integrity of creation.' I like that use of the 
word 'integrity': for the universe is indeed a whole and we must try to 
see it and treat it and preserve it as a whole. We are now rapidly acquir- 
ing the knowledge to work out what this commandment means in 
practice, and to 

84 / The Quest for God 

observe it accordingly. So our responsibilities increase with our under- 
standing, exactly as a growing child's do. We are beginning to move 
about the universe as adults, and we must behave as adults. 

No sensible person will disagree with this, and it only remains to 
work out what it means in practice. But it is at this point that the trouble 
begins, on account of what I do not hesitate to classify as a new form 
of paganism-environmentalism: an ugly name for an ugly thing. Pagan- 
ism is a periodically besetting sin of the human race and it can take a 
variety of forms. In our times it has re-emerged with enormous force 
as a movement, especially among the young and educated (perhaps 
one should say half-educated) to sanctify nature in all its forms-oceans, 
rivers, rain-forests, wetlands, uplands, bats and herons, elephants, 
whales and white rhinos, and many other objects and species, common 
or rare. It has taken advantage of the fact that we live in the Age of the 
Lobby to make itself immensely strong. But it is much more than a 
lobby or a series of lobbies-Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Club 
of Rome, etc. It is, undoubtedly, a form of religion. Its adherents, who 
are mostly young or youngish, but not without the odd bronzed and 
scrawny guru or fakir among them, betray all the signs of religious 
enthusiasm: absolute conviction, lack of interest in any arguments except 
their own, contempt for evidence except the canonical 'facts' they 
present as such, extreme activism, and a tendency to take part in pro- 
cessions, demos, marches, martyrdoms and miraculous happenings. 
Most of these people, in another day and age, would have been religious 
persons: in the Middle Ages, Franciscans; in the sixteenth century, Jesuits 
and Carmelites, Calvinists and Baptists; in the nineteenth century, re- 
vivalists at Camp Meetings, fanatical Emancipationists and John 
Brownists, missionary nuns, Salvationist blowers of bugles and strum- 
mers of tambourines. They are now too 'modern' and rationalist, too 
up-to-the-moment and of their age to believe in the God of the Judeo- 
Christian tradition. So they take up this new form of pantheism instead. 
It fills the vacuum in their hearts and souls left by the waning of formal 
religion. They see themselves as strictly reasonable and scientific, in 
their presentation of apocalyptic visions of the earth ruined by the 
greenhouse effect, acid rain and global warming. They are replete with 
charts and graphs 

God's ivorld-or ours ? / 85 

and statistics and infra-red aerial photographs, and they can rustle up 
professors and experts galore to endorse their objectives. But in reality 
they are no more level-headed than the ancient Israelites who, while 
Moses was up in the mountain communing with the real God, made a 
gold calf and danced around it. 

One piece of environmental dishonesty which left a profound impres- 
sion on me was their initial differentiation between capitalist destruction 
on the one hand, and socialist conservation on the other. At a time when 
the Soviet Empire, in Europe and Asia, was doing everything in its 
power to stamp out organised religion and traditional morality, the 
environmentalists were holding it up as an example of responsible be- 
haviour. All their critical venom was concentrated on the capitalist 
West, whose very system was presented as an organised orgy of waste 
and artificially created needs, which by its nature consumed but did 
not conserve or replenish, which destroyed but did not restore. The 
capitalist system, they argued, was intrinsically and by its very nature 
anti-environmentalist, incorrigibly so, and the underlying assumption 
of all their propaganda, throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, 
was that to get a saner, purer, ecologically sound world we would have 
to replace capitalism altogether, presumably by some form of socialism. 

In fact this presentation of the case has proved wrong in every partic- 
ular. One of the virtues of capitalism is that it is self-corrective. It re- 
sponds remarkably quickly to popular demand, and if the demand is 
for a cleaner environment and a less wasteful use of resources, then 
that demand will be quickly met. The point made by the more sensible 
kind of environmentalist, that careful and intelligent use of resources, 
and respect for nature, actually produces greater efficiency, is one that 
capitalism is peculiarly well suited to grasp. And it has grasped the 
point. Over the past three decades, with increasing speed and even 
enthusiasm. Western commercial institutions, great and small, have 
often been ahead of the state, with its slow and clumsy systems of 
statutes and regulations, in addressing environmental problems. But 
all this is perfectly well known to those who take the trouble to study 
objectively what is being done. 

What was less well known until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 
1989, which thereafter laid bare the evidence for all to inspect. 

86 / The Quest for God 

was the degree of devastation which the command economy, or social- 
ism, or Communism, or whatever you care to call the Marxist-Leninist 
way of running things, has inflicted on the environment in Eastern 
Europe and West and Central Asia. We are only now beginning to un- 
derstand the magnitude of the damage which has been done, some of 
it irreparable. The physical injuries inflicted on the surface of the earth- 
plainly visible if you fly over Siberia, which is now possible-are exceeded 
only by the wasteful use of natural resources. The Soviet Union ruined 
the entire Aral Sea and some of the largest river systems in the world. 
It destroyed whole oilfields, for ever, by incompetent and even criminal 
exploitation. That story, too, is now becoming well known. What is 
notable, however, is that the environmentalist lobbies, once so noisy in 
contrasting capitalist shame with socialist pride, have made no apology 
at all for thus misleading the world. They have simply passed on to 
fresh battles, usually against Western governments and international 

But, before we follow them, there is an important point to be made 
in this contrast between the performance of capitalist West and socialist 
East. It is not exactly surprising that an atheist system, based upon what 
Marx called dialectical materialism, which denied the existence of God 
formally, and sought to explode the spiritual element of life completely- 
as a 'bourgeois superstructure'-should have treated the earth with such 
contempt and harshness. Even in the heyday of the early capitalist 
system, in late eighteenth-century Britain, when it was at its most 
wasteful and destructive, there were powerful spiritual voices raised 
against it, in God's name. William Blake animated the ghost of Milton, 
to pronounce the requisitoire against unbridled capitalism. In his great 
poem of that name he included the magical verse turned into the hymn 
'Jerusalem', whose radical sentiments, by one of those ironies beloved 
of the British, have not prevented it becoming a favourite of tradition- 
alists, so that it is reverently sung at annual Conservative Party Confer- 
ences, as a right-wing alternative to 'The Red Flag'. Blake's voice was 
not alone, however. Edmund Burke and William Wordsworth, Samuel 
Taylor Coleridge and John Henry Newman were among many others 
who, with a variety of arguments springing from Christian religious 
principle, called for restraints on the new industrial capitalism. The 

God's ivorld-or ours ? / 87 

tian moral tradition has always provided a critique of commercialism 
which has been used by legislators to introduce statutory restraints-not 
just humanitarian ones, like those limiting working hours and the em- 
ployment of children, but others directly designed to protect the envir- 
onment, like city and country planning regulations, anti-pollution laws, 
wildlife protection acts, the creation of national parks and reservations, 
as well as measures to provide pure air and water, and healthy food. 
Some of these go back to the early nineteenth century, and in the whole 
effort to place industrialisation within a legal framework, the key figure 
was the Christian fundamentalist the Earl of Shaftesbury, father of 
factory legislation. 

The early history of the environmentalist movement, in fact, shows 
that it sprang up among men and women grounded in this religious 
tradition, who always brought God into the argument. God, they argued, 
had a right to be there (it is hard to think of an argument where he has 
no right to be) because he made the universe and man is his mere tenant. 
But in putting this point of view, and insisting that God's freehold rights 
be respected, they never fell into the trap of pantheism or paganism, or 
invested inanimate nature itself with rights which properly belong to 
God alone. Nor did they ignore the rights of man, complementary to 
God's, as tenant-in-chief and, under God's law, ruler of creation in this 
world. The early environmentalists, being mostly enthusiastic Christians, 
were never anti-human. But the movement has always had a tendency 
to slip into extremism and to attract fanatics, and in the last generation 
it has been not only de-Christianised and paganised, but rendered irra- 
tional and destructive of the legitimate interests of the human race. 

Indeed the force and fury of environmentalist lobbying is doing an 
increasing amount of damage, often to the cause itself, as weak and 
confused governments bend to its will. I was dismayed, as many other 
reasonable people were, in the early summer of 1995, when a plan to 
sink in deep ocean waters a Shell oil-platform, which had reached the 
end of its working life-a plan arrived at as the least-damaging solution 
to the problem, after many studies and much deliberation and consulta- 
tion-was abruptly dropped after environmental extremists started a 
noisy boycott of Shell products. Here was an unpleasant demonstration 
of the irrational 

88 / The Quest for God 

power of the new paganism. Shortly afterwards I found myself in a 
moral dilemma over the open clash between Greenpeace, which had 
led the campaign against the Shell plan, and the French government, 
over the issue of French nuclear testing in the Pacific. I greatly dislike 
French governments, notorious for their arrogance and selfish in- 
transigence, and I greatly dislike Greenpeace for its pagan fanaticism. 
Which, then, to support? When the French refused to bow to the clamour 
and actually seized the Greenpeace propaganda ship, I found myself 
reluctantly forced to take sides, and raised a feeble Vive la Fran cel And 
I think my instinct was right. The French did not leave God out of the 
argument. They rested their case for building nuclear weapons, which 
involves testing them, on the right of self-defence, enshrined in Natural 
Law and endorsed by the law of God. They may have given it a wrong 
interpretation in this particular instance-that is a genuine matter of ar- 
gument-but they were not acting outside a moral and legal context. 
Greenpeace was simply invading national sovereignty in pursuit of an 
irrational point of view which holds all nuclear energy to be inherently 
evil. But nuclear energy is not inherently evil: it is a gift of God, like 
other inventions, to be used subject to the appropriate restraints which 
qualify all God's gifts. To deny people the right to use it, on a pagan 
principle that the earth and oceans are sacrosanct, seems to me sinful. 

A similar drift to dangerous and morally flawed extremism can be 
observed in the animal rights movement, whose lobbies are often closely 
connected to the environmentalist ones, and even overlap. The way in 
which we treat animals, and all living things below the level of human- 
ity, has already become an important issue in advanced Western socie- 
ties, and will become still more important in the twenty-first century. 
Here again, we will get the argument all wrong-certainly confused-if 
we leave God out of it. I must tread carefully here. As a veteran journ- 
alist, I discovered long ago that nothing is more calculated to inflame 
the reader-especially British and American readers-than an ill-con- 
sidered reference to animals. Animals are much loved in our world, 
and their interests jealously protected, sometimes over-protected. That 
God created all forms of animal life, of set purpose, and that he loves 
them accordingly-as he loves all his creation-is certain. He has their 
interests at heart and perceives them better than 

God's ivorld-or ours ? / 89 

anyone else. All that remains for us is to interpret his teaching. Therein, 
however, lies the difficulty. Animal lovers and the Judeo-Christian 
tradition have had an uneasy relationship. The Old and New Testa- 
ment's are not exactly the animal-lover's bible. Therein animals are 
treated as wild enemies of the human race-seeing the Devil as a 'roaring 
lion, seeking whom he may devour '-or as cherished objects of human 
property, to be protected and legislated about accordingly, but essen- 
tially to be used by humans without regard for the interests of the an- 
imals themselves. Abraham's abortive sacrifice of his son Isaac, which 
is held up to illustrate the mercy and humanitarianism in God, actually 
ends in a young ram getting its throat cut. It is a curious fact that, in 
the whole length of the Old Testament, there is only one reference to 
an animal being kept as a pet. The New Testament is no different. Jesus 
Christ has no particular concern for animals. He is born in a manger 
and the beasts of the field keep him warm, therein producing a mass 
of sentimental Christian iconography, but as an adult he uses a great 
draught of fishes to perform a commercially attractive miracle and he 
causes the Gadarene swine to go to their maddened deaths without 
compunction. His most intimate contact with the animal world occurs 
when he chooses on Palm Sunday to enter Jerusalem on an ass, and this 
was ingeniously seized upon by Chesterton to compose a triumphalist 
pro-animal poem. But Christ's choice of animal was made to emphasise 
his modesty not to suggest he was fond of asses. No, there is not much 
in the New Testament, any more than in the Old, for animal-lovers. 

All the same, the teachings of the religious tradition on how we should 
treat animals are perfectly reasonable. I am not going to get involved 
in the intricacies of Jewish dietary laws, and I am aware that some 
people object strongly to the slaughtering procedures involved in the 
production of kosher meat. They may have a case. But in general, Jewish 
theology lays down that the animals are part of God's creation and en- 
trusted to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. 
People may thus use animals for their legitimate purposes, but we must 
respect their integrity and we owe them decency and kindness. Christian 
teaching continues this tradition and elaborates it. God has a providen- 
tial care for his animals and they, for their part, by their mere 

90 / The Quest for God 

existence bless him and give him glory. Not only is habitual ill-treatment 
and needless cruelty to animals gravely sinful, but the love of animals- 
within proper limits-is meritorious. We have a positive duty to prevent 
animals from dying needlessly, and there is strong approval for organ- 
isations which look after animal welfare in a sensible manner. But the 
new Catholic Catechism specifically permits medical and scientific exper- 
imentation on animals 'within reasonable limits' where it 'contributes 
to caring for or saving human lives'; it condemns as 'unworthy' 
spending money on animals 'that should as a priority go to the relief 
of human misery'; and it concludes: 'One can love animals; one should 
not direct to them the affection due only to persons.' 

So far so good. But the church does not, I note, talk about animal 
rights. That is wise. It is not clear to me that anyone has rights, apart 
from God himself. And certainly it is hard to see how a creature can 
possess rights without also possessing complementary responsibilities. 
Men may have rights and they certainly have duties. Animals, so far 
as we can judge, have dutiful instincts to their kind, and they can be 
taught to perform duties to us, but so far as we can see they have no 
autonomous sense of responsibility such as all humans possess. Rights 
and duties are and must be reciprocal. I conclude from this that to talk 
of animal rights is wrong and misleading and will simply lead us into 
moral confusions-as it is already leading the animal rights enthusiasts. 
The right approach is to begin with the duties of human beings to an- 
imals, which are numerous and imperative. It is by ignoring these duties, 
rather than by failing to respect imaginary rights, that we have fallen 
short in the past. If we work out and list these duties correctly, and then 
perform them, we will be doing God's will. 

All the same, I feel that a great change is coming in our relationship 
with the animal world. Great saints like St Francis, St Cuthbert and St 
Philip Neri, who were particularly close to animals, and specially 
sensitive to the way in which they manifested God's will and love, saw 
this change coming and were ahead of their times. The understanding 
of animals they individually and intuitively acquired is gradually be- 
coming more general as we use all the resources of modern science to 
get closer to them. We are indeed beginning to understand how animals 
think and why they do 

God's ivorld-or ours ? / 91 

things, and that understanding makes us appreciate them far more and 
treat them more intelligently. The more we understand about life in 
general, the more we value the lives of all creatures. Vegetarianism is 
spreading, inexorably I believe. God allowed us to live off the beasts 
of the fields and the forest because there was no other way, then, for 
humankind to survive and prosper. But our technology is now such 
that we can produce endless varieties of nourishing and delicious foods 
without resorting to animal flesh. Gradually this realisation will take 
hold of us. The rise of factory farming, whereby food-producers cannot 
remain competitive except by subjecting animals to life-cycles of un- 
speakable deprivation, has hastened this process. The human spirit re- 
volts at what we have been doing. 

A Danish friend of mine, who has a large farm which, following the 
Danish tradition, dealt largely in pigs, has ended his share in the trade. 
He told me: 'I came to know my pigs well. They are highly intelligent 
and sensitive creatures. They are quite unlike cows, let alone chickens. 
It is quite wrong-obviously and unquestionably wrong-that we should 
breed them in the ways that have become universal under modern 
trading conditions.' So he has stopped raising pigs, and he is turning 
the buildings which once housed them, and the land where they 
browsed, into an opera house. These feelings of revulsion will spread 
and intensify, and gradually take hold of the West, and eventually the 
East and South too. I believe we shall gradually come to regard eating 
the flesh of animals as no more acceptable than cannibalism-and no 
more necessary, either. 

I detect a change in myself too. Perhaps it is because I am growing 
old, and coming closer to the day when I must say farewell to my own 
life and body, that I am becoming increasingly respectful of life in any 
form. It is hard to think of any manifestation of God's creative spirit- 
any living thing he produces, however frail or primitive-which is less 
than wonderful. An ordinary house-fly, closely inspected, is a miracle 
of contrivance. It now seems to me that to swat such a remarkable being, 
except under the clearest necessity, is an outrage against nature. I am 
now very careful in the way I deal with annoying insects, let alone larger 
vermin. The idea of killing game is now to me abhorrent. I now very 
much regret that, nearly half a century ago, I shot and 

92 / The Quest for God 

killed a bear in Scandinavia. There appeared, at the time, some justific- 
ation for slaughtering the beast, but that now seems to me special 

The last time I took part in a punitive expedition was a lesson to me. 
I went with my host, a large Highland landowner, on a search-and- 
destroy mission against herons which were devastating the river-salmon. 
Herons are beautiful and amazing birds, and heavily protected by law, 
but they have amazing appetites and are capable of eating their entire 
bodyweight-and more-every day. Their slaughter of salmon in the pools 
is horrific. We have duties to salmon as well as to herons, and my host 
had duties to the estate, much indebted to its salmon fishery, and to 
the many estate-workers who depended for their livelihood on its sur- 
vival. That, at any rate, was our rationale for this expedition. We detec- 
ted two herons very quickly, and my host shot them. He reckoned two 
were enough: the rest would take the hint and go elsewhere, as indeed 
they did. But when I examined the bodies of these large and once- 
splendid birds, I was abashed. They had changed in the instant of death 
from confident and graceful aerial monarchs of the river into mere 
huddled bundles of lifeless feathers, utterly insignificant and pathetic. 
One felt that a crime had been committed. So my uncertain and reluctant 
career as a hunter finally ended. 

In the twenty-first century, then, we are likely to see our relationship 
with the animal world-and the other world of living creation-change 
fundamentally, as we sort out our moral ideas and adjust our economic 
habits accordingly. All that will be in accordance with God's will, as 
we come to understand it more fully. What is less clear, however, is 
whether our greater knowledge of the animal world, which we are ac- 
quiring through more sophisticated instrumentation and systematic 
observation, will help to revise our ideas about the place animals have 
in the providential scheme. Have they something akin to our souls? 
Will they, like us, have a place in the afterlife? The churches usually 
answer no to the first question and are silent or unforthcoming on the 
second. St Francis would have said yes to both. But he, and his views, 
were s ui generis. The church as an institution, like Judaism as an institu- 
tion, insists on the uniqueness of humanity- the animal world is no more 
than an appendage. The right answer. 

God's ivorld-or ours ? / 93 

surely, is that we do not know enough to say. Despite our science, we 
have no more knowledge of what goes on inside the head of a dog than 
our Stone Age forebears who first domesticated him. In fact they may 
well have known more than we do, intuitively, because they depended 
more on the creature for their survival. 

I had my fine dog Parker for the entire eighteen years of his life. I 
loved that dog and he loved me. We each studied the other, noted in- 
tentions, moods, likes and dislikes, pleasures and pursuits, prejudices. 
He studied me more intently and intelligently than I studied him, and 
he responded to my wishes with a hairtrigger speed and exactness 
which did immense credit to his heart and head. I could not conceivably 
have asked more from a dog. But did he have a soul? At the end of 
those eighteen years, when I parted from him with much sorrow, I was 
none the wiser. I looked and looked into those bright, far-sighted eyes, 
so anxious to respond and to please, and could detect nothing spiritual 
whatever. At the end of it all, the only sensible maxim is to be kind to 
animals and to love them with all appropriate love. Lockhart, in his 
marvellous life of Scott, which shows he was everything a good man 
should be, remarks: 'He was a gentleman even to his dogs.' That is in- 
deed a tribute. Anyone who has owned dogs knows that it is not easy 
to treat them in a gentlemanly fashion. They are too subservient, too 
anxious to please, too forbearing of bad temper and selfishness, too 
forgiving of ill- or inconsiderate treatment, to bring out the gentleman 
in you. Nonetheless, Scott somehow contrived to be a gentleman to his, 
and that is the heroic example we should follow towards all animals. 


The problematical uniqueness 
of mankind 

On a clear night, when countless stars are visible and many of them 
shine with intensity, we humans are filled with awe. But we draw dif- 
ferent conclusions from the experience. Blaise Pascal, in his Pensees, 
wrote: 'La silence eternelle de ces espaces m'effraye.' He was frightened 
not just by the immensity of God's power, but by the sheer size of the 
setting in which man's insignificance is so marked-and the unwillingness 
or inability of that immensity to say anything about itself. Thomas 
Hardy, who found it difficult to believe in a God whose actions, in his 
view, displayed blind malignity rather than benevolent providence, 
made much the same point. He uses the experience of night-time obser- 
vation of the heavens, from the plateau of Egdon Heath in The Return 
of the Native, to show how, watching the stars, we actually become 
conscious of the rolling of the earth, and can perceive that it is not flat 
but round, and hurtling through space. Thus we are made painfully 
conscious of how small we are, and how endless the universe, and if- 
as Hardy concluded-there is no Almighty God for us to look to, how 
much we have to fear! Far better, then, for mankind to behave like an 
animal, and burrow deeper into the familiar, comforting earth, burying 
our heads and hiding like the ostrich from the nameless terrors in space. 

For some people the sheer size of the universe is the most obvious 
disproof of the existence of God. That, as we have seen, was H. G. 
Wells's view. It is very common among scientific materialists. In my 
arguments with Richard Dawkins, recently promoted Professor of 
Public Understanding at Oxford University, I discovered that this was 
the point he found most conclusive in demonstrating the impossibility 
of a supreme being: there was just too much for him to be supreme 
over. Try as I may, I cannot 

The problematical uniqueness of mankind / 95 

see the logic of this. It seems to me that quantitative argument works 
more cogently against atheism or humanism than against deism. The 
more our radio-telescopes enlarge our notions of how big space is, the 
less likely it seems that physically fragile creatures like ourselves, living 
in time and space, can ever achieve mastery of the universe-or think 
and behave as if we could-and the more likely it is that something 
metaphysical, like God, whose powers are not limited by any system 
of measurement, must exist, to keep it all in order. 

If we cast our minds back to the age of primitive man, we can see 
him spending many of the night-time hours, after hunting was done 
but sleep had not yet claimed him, lying on his back and gazing up at 
the heavens. He saw those same stars as we do, and wondered about 
them. He had an acute sense of visual distance-much better than ours, 
for he needed it for hunting-and he must have realised how far away 
they were and therefore how enormous the heavens must be. I suspect 
it was precisely this night-gazing which implanted in his mind the idea 
that there must be a God, not just the familiar, local gods of nearby 
streams and woods, but something-someone-much bigger and mightier. 
The power of local gods radiated over limited distances only, and other 
gods and charms had to be carried around to remain effective. But the 
god of the heavens was a mighty god of gods precisely because space 
was so enormous. It is significant that all the earliest pantheons con- 
tained supergods like this, as though primitive man's study of cosmo- 
logy, crude though it was, already pushed him in the direction of 
monotheism. I think his instinct is surer and sounder than the half- 
knowledge of a clever twentieth-century scientist, dazzled by statistics 
and calculations about billions of light-years. 

However, in one respect our greater knowledge of the immensity of 
the universe has changed our perception of man's place in it-and God's- 
and the relationship between the two. Until recently, primitive man 
shared one belief with all his descendants: a conviction that man, as a 
species, was unique and therefore his relation to God singular. Whatever 
else we might think, there was only one human race, only one lot of 
beings 'made in God's image', and we were therefore the principal object 
of God's attention. All the drama of creation, the Fall, Original Sin and 

96 / The Quest for God 

redemption, the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of God's Son, 
Death and Judgment, Hell and Heaven and Eternity-all was entirely 
for our benefit. Neither the Old Testament nor the New hints at any 
other possibility. Plato and Aristotle both assumed the human race to 
be unique in its potentiality. So did Maimonides on behalf of Jewish 
thinkers, Avicenna and Averoes for Islam, St Thomas Aquinas for the 
Christians. Our entire framework of thinking about religion is condi- 
tioned by this polarity: Man-and God. But what if there are other parties? 

It is surprising how little thought theologians have given to the pos- 
sibility of stars or planets being inhabited by creatures more or less like 
ourselves. Or rather it might be surprising if the scientists themselves 
had not also largely ignored this field of speculation. But they do, 
probably because they do not want to be laughed at or forfeit the esteem 
of colleagues. Ever since some early man or woman spotted the Man 
in the Moon-and that happened thousands of years ago-the idea of 
creatures in space has been associated with comedy rather than mystery: 
little green men with eyes on stalks or ant-like things in flying saucers. 
As a result the only kind of people who have taken them seriously have 
been fiction-writers and cranks, the latter not above a bit of faking to 
impress fellow-fanatics. The serious scientists have kept well clear and 
theologians have considered the entire subject beneath their notice. 

Leaving divine agency aside for the moment, the evolution of human 
life on our planet seems to have been the consequence of an amazing 
series of happenstances or coincidences or accidents of nature. The 
chances of this combination of circumstances occurring at all are slim, 
and seen from this viewpoint our very existence, as homo sapiens, is an 
amazing piece of good fortune. The chances, therefore, of a similar 
combination, producing a comparable end-result, must seem inconceiv- 
able-rather like the standard impossibility of monkeys, sat down at 
typewriters and bashing away at random, producing the entire works 
of Shakespeare. But we know that it is theoretically possible for precisely 
this to happen. Equally, a type of being similar to ourselves emerging 
somewhere in space is also theoretically possible if space is big enough. 
But we now know that space is so big that such a happening can theor- 
etically have taken place not once but many 

The problematical uniqueness of mankind / 97 

times-perhaps hundreds, thousands, even millions of times. And if it 
can have taken place so often, then surely it must have taken place in 
reality, at least once. 

This opens up alarming possibilities. I am not concerned here with 
the possibilities of such creatures existing and making contact with us, 
or of us making contact with them-or of their invading us, as in Wells's 
The War of the Worlds. I leave that to the writers of science fiction. More 
practical and serious-minded scientists are also at work on the possib- 
ility of other worlds and their inhabitants. We are not merely sending 
large-scale probes into the space which immediately surrounds us; we 
are also radiating signals to much more distant space, in the hope that 
somebody or something will pick them up, and reply. American, British 
and French defence experts are also working on these possibilities, as 
it is their duty to do. 

My concern is quite different. If there is another world somewhat 
like ours, and on it there are creatures with intelligences and sensibilities 
comparable to ours, then two questions immediately arise. First, did 
God put them there, in the same way as he 'put' us on earth: that is, 
made possible the physical circumstances in which we could evolve? 
Second, have they become aware of God's existence, and intentions, in 
the way that we have done? These are very disturbing questions indeed. 
They need to be considered separately, to begin with, though they are 
in fact closely connected. The answer to the first question need not ne- 
cessarily upset us too much. God may well have put thinking and sen- 
tient beings rather like us on another star or planet, just as he 'put' the 
native peoples in North and South America. For many thousands of 
years the existence of the American Indians was unknown to the peoples 
of the Eurasian land-mass, among whom the biblical story was situated. 
Abraham arose and became the father of the Israelite people, and in 
due course Moses led this people from Egypt to the Promised Land, 
and was given the Law by God on Mount Sinai, and transmuted the 
Law into the Pentateuch or the Torah or the Old Testament or whatever 
we may wish to call it, and the dominant form of human monotheism- 
amended by the New Testament into Christianity and by the Koran 
into Islam-came into existence. It was a Eurasian creation, originally 
the work of a small collection of tribes inhabiting a very limited portion 
of Eurasia. 

98 / The Quest for God 

But the Jews were a people of the diaspora from very early times, and 
even by the age of Christ their scattered communities were all over the 
Mediterranean and constituted about 10 per cent of the population of 
the Roman Empire. Under the aegis of Christianity, and later of Islam, 
the form of monotheism described in the Bible spread to large areas of 
Eurasia and even of Africa. Then in the fifteenth century it crossed the 
Atlantic, 'discovered' the American Indians, and introduced them to 
the Christian form of monotheism. By analogy, then, it may be the task 
of us monotheistic earthlings to carry the truth to the 'natives' of space, 
and 'convert' them to our way of religious thinking, just as the Spaniards 
and Portuguese originally evangelised and baptised the American Indi- 
ans. There may be problems of acculturation, and a need to incorporate 
or translate or transmute the religious customs or practices of the space 
'natives' into Christian norms, but that problem already exists, particu- 
larly in Africa, and we are used to dealing with it, albeit we have not 
always handled it successfully. 

This comforting scenario, however, presupposes that the space 'nat- 
ives' have reached only a comparatively early stage of progress-earlier 
than ours, anyway-and have yet to evolve towards monotheism. It also 
presupposes that we 'discover' them, and evangelise and baptise them. 
And it may well be that one or more of the inhabited other worlds are 
of precisely this kind, and that it is God's purpose that we should 
eventually get to them and bring their peoples into the faith, just as 
Europe sent out missionaries to the world. But there is an alternative 
possibility, and if there be many inhabited worlds, a strong possibility- 
almost a certainty-that some of these 'natives' are actually a good deal 
more advanced than we are, and have already developed their own 
forms of monotheism, which are better than or at any rate quite different 
to ours, and that far from us discovering and colonising and evangelising 
them, they discover and colonise and evangelise us. 

Where does this leave the uniqueness of human beings, and the sin- 
gularity of their relationship with Almighty God? At first glance it 
leaves both in ruins. We then have to imagine ourselves as far less im- 
portant than we had supposed. We may still be lord of all we survey 
here, for a time at least. But we may turn out to be a rather puny and 
insignificant species in terms of the universe: not 

The problematical uniqueness of mankind / 99 

very numerous and not very powerful and rather underdeveloped-in 
fact exactly like the native American Indians, when first Columbus, 
then Cortes and Pizarro stepped from their boats and waded ashore. 
Man's imagination has already been exercised by the prospect of being 
visited and colonised and conquered from outer space-though the 
stories we tell ourselves usually have a happy ending, as in Wells's 
prototype-but we have given little or no thought to the prospect of being 
evangelised from outer space, though it is only too likely. If outer-space 
invaders come here and bring their superior technology and weapons, 
they are virtually certain to bring their religious beliefs too, and these 
will very likely seem superior also. 

This intriguing possibility brings us inevitably to the second question: 
have these distant creatures like us become aware of God's existence 
and intentions, as we have done? This is really the key question: is he 
the same God for them, as he is for us? Now if we believe that God is 
indeed omnipotent and ubiquitous, and that his power extends to the 
whole of creation-and we really have no alternative but to believe this, 
if we believe in God at all-then we must suppose that their God and 
our God is the same. How could it be otherwise? At a certain stage of 
their evolution, God must have manifested himself to them, as he did 
to us, communicated with them, as he did with us, and given them his 
instructions-his commandments-as he did with us. 

However, what we must find it difficult to believe, and I for one find 
it impossible to believe, is that religious development among these 
other peoples followed exactly the same trajectory as ours, or even a 
similar one. There cannot have been a similar Eden in outer space, and 
a comparable Fall, and a Flood, and an exile in Egypt, and an outer- 
space Moses and another planetary Ten Commandments. Whatever 
God planned for these other, distant creatures of his, it must have been 
somewhat different even at the beginning of their story, and have fol- 
lowed a radically different line as things developed. I reject absolutely 
that these other creatures are, in each case, clones of mankind, and that 
the entire biblical epic has been re-enacted elsewhere in space, perhaps 
many times. The story of the relations of these space creatures with God 
must have been quite different, and if there are many such races of 
creatures, we are faced with the existence of a whole series of 

100 / The Quest for God 

different stories, a multiplicity of religious epics, each unique in itself 
and contrasting-perhaps clashing-with the rest. 

For Christians a particular problem immediately raises itself. Jesus 
Christ was sent by God to earth to sacrifice himself and thus to redeem 
mankind. St John's Gospel says that 'God so loved the world that he 
sent his only son' to achieve this. When the first Christian priests went 
in Columbus's ships, this raised no difficulty for them. The native 
Americans were clearly part of mankind and God's son had died for 
them too. They were just as eligible to receive the Christian message as 
the Gentiles to whom St Paul had originally preached it. But what of 
those creatures in outer space? Again, if they are comparatively primit- 
ive creatures, and we get to them before they get to us, then the problem 
is soluble. They are to be treated as mankind or as an appendage to it, 
and we can assume Jesus died for them too. But what if they are super- 
ior creatures, and they get here first? What if they have their own salva- 
tion story, and worship Jesus in another name? Obviously, there are 
going to be problems of concordance, and they will be less and less 
easily soluble the more the rival salvation story-or stories-varies from 
our own. 

Now let me posit another alternative. Suppose these creatures arrive 
here with the story of their God, who resembles ours in omnipotence 
and so on, but they have no story of a Fall and Redemption. What be- 
comes of concordance then? Are we to suppose that God created two 
quite separate kinds of sapient creature, one which was tempted and 
fell but the other of which did not, but lived in accordance with God's 
word ab initio an idyllic, Eden-like existence? Or is there a possibility 
that this other order of God's creatures was subjected to a quite different 
providential plan, the nature of which we cannot even begin to guess 
at? How do these two sets of creatures fit in with each other? Does God 
appear in one guise to us and in another, quite different, guise to them? 
Do they come higher than us in the order of creation? Are we, perhaps, 
to be their creatures, intended by God to be so, just as God made us 
masters of the world and all its creatures? 

Now it maybe said: this is mere mischievous speculation. By discuss- 
ing such possibilities-and they are no more than possibilities, highly 
unlikely ones at that-you tend to put needless 

The problematical uniqueness of mankind / 101 

doubts into the minds of men and women and undermine settled faith 
for no good purpose. But I have a reply to this criticism. Has not the 
time come to be less globocentric? Until the twentieth century was well 
advanced, Christians tended to see the church with almost exclusively 
European eyes-America being judged an appendix of Europe-and this 
necessarily narrowed our vision and range of sensibilities. We have 
since learned to be less Eurocentric and to bring all the varied peoples 
of the earth into our religious considerations. That has proved an ad- 
vantage. In the Catholic Church, for instance, when there is a papal 
conclave, we see cardinals of all races and colours coming to Rome, and 
when there is a General Council the bishops come in their thousands 
from all parts of the globe, speaking all tongues and embodying a vast 
range of customs and attitudes-thus the universality of the church is 
visibly proclaimed. 

Similarly, I think it is right and profitable to imagine a wider church 
still, a truly universal church, in which emissaries speed from one solar 
system to the next, from one galaxy to another on the other side of space, 
just as, many centuries ago, the patriarchs and bishops of the primitive 
church sailed about the eastern Mediterranean to attend councils. It is 
not too difficult for us to imagine this happening among an interter- 
restrial community which is an extension of our global one. But we 
ought equally to consider the possibility that a truly universal church 
may be very different indeed to anything we have so far experienced 
here on earth. We may be a junior and insignificant part of it, with a lot 
to learn and little if anything to teach. 

It is good for our incipient hubris to think of these possibilities, and 
right to become accustomed to the possibility that our vision of faith 
may be subjected to a rude and alarming shock one of these days. When 
rumours reached the outside world in the late 1940s that a huge depos- 
itory of ancient religious texts had been discovered somewhere near 
the Dead Sea, there was widespread anxiety among senior religious 
men, not least in the Vatican, that these texts might contain revelations 
about the Old Testament or the New-or the actual life of Christ-which 
would prove mighty awkward. There was a good deal of position-taking 
in advance, and a certain amount of skulduggery in getting possession 
of the texts and supervising their transcription and exegesis. In the 

102 / The Quest for God 

event, no one need have worried: the Dead Sea Scrolls, immensely in- 
teresting though they proved, upset no fundamental tenet of anyone's 
faith and did not even introduce a stupendously new historical fact af- 
fecting our knowledge of the Old Testament or the New. I confess, I 
was myself disappointed. More important, as it happened, was a tiny 
papyrus fragment which enabled scholars to confirm the early dating 
of the Synoptic Gospels in 1994, and which had been lying in Magdalen 
College Library, in Oxford, all the time. I mention the Dead Sea Scrolls 
simply to indicate that the Christian faith, like the Jewish faith from 
which it springs, is a historical set of beliefs, which attests to actual 
events in the real world, and therefore can be fundamentally modified 
by the production of new evidence. As we begin to explore space, and- 
more important, perhaps-as people in space begin to explore us, we 
have to be prepared to be able to accommodate, within our traditional 
system of belief, stunning new knowledge which will challenge the 
singularity of our own relationship with God and may be exceedingly 
difficult to reconcile with our own religious understanding of what has 
happened in history. In short, God may have some surprises for us, 
which may well seem like nasty surprises to begin with. 

In all this speculation, however, there is one comforting fact. Whatever 
mysteries and surprises space may hold for us, none of them need have 
any disturbing effect on our individual relationship with God. God, as 
I believe, created each one of us; God speaks directly to us, personally, 
intimately, confidentially; and we in turn speak one-to-one with God 
in our prayers. That is the absolute certain fact about God and each of 
us, and nothing to come in space and time can change it. Whether the 
human race be singular or not, whether we are unique as a God-wor- 
shipping species, or must share him with other or even many sets of 
creatures throughout the universe-some of whom may be radically 
different to ourselves-nothing can prevent God entering our hearts and 
dwelling there, if we invite him. 

Therein, of course, lies the wonder of faith, as I understand it. It is 
gigantic enough to stretch across the universe, however vast it may be, 
but it is also small and special and particular enough to be a single soul 
reaching out to God. There is a sense in which time and space and 
magnitude are quite irrelevant. God created 

The problematical uniqueness of mankind / 103 

the universe out of love, and love is its energising and sustaining prin- 
ciple. The principle expresses itself as intensely and perfectly in the 
communion of one individual with God as it does with the collective 
worship of countless billions, living in worlds an infinity of light-years 
apart. God and his universe are equally macrocosm and microcosm 
because in the end love is not to be measured by time and space. With 
God, quantitative considerations do not apply, because he transcends 
them. As William Blake puts it ( Auguries of Innocence): 

To see the World in a Grain of sand. 

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. 

And Eternity in an hour. 

This important point, that for each of us our personal relationship with 
God is the key to faith, needs qualification, however. Each of us has 
this individual relationship with our creator and nothing can take it 
away from us. Each of us can lose our soul, and each of us can save it. 
It is an undoubted and possibly a tragic fact, as Pascal remarks, 'On 
mourra seul'-we shall die alone. We come to individual judgment. But 
that is not the end of the story. We are part of a vast collectivity of souls. 
We belong, as Catholic theology puts it, to the mystical body of Christ, 
which is the church. This membership is or ought to be a source of 
strength to us. There is a point in the sacrifice of the Mass when the 
priest, on behalf of the congregation, asks God: 'Look not upon our 
sins, but on the faith of thy church.' Our individual failings can be, and 
often are, counterbalanced by the collective goodness of the church as 
a whole, 'the communion of saints', as the liturgy puts it. This belief is 
not confined to the Roman Catholic Church. It is to be found, in one 
form or another, in all the branches of Christianity, in Judaism and in 
other serious religions. We are born individually and we die alone-there 
is no escaping these facts. But we also have a collective status by virtue 
of the faith and worship we share with countless others, and this gives 
us access to privileges which no one individual, it may be, is worthy to 

A church, then, is a source of strength. As it is devoted to the worship 
of God, it is, almost by definition, a divine institution. 

104 / The Quest for God 

But it is also, necessarily, a human one. That raises problems, serious 
and almost intractable problems, of organisation, leadership, discipline 
and authority. That is the subject of the next chapter. 


The church, dogma, authority, order and 


The idea that worshipping God is a matter of individual choice, and 
that men and women can decide for themselves the manner in which 
they do so-or whether they do it at all-is a comparatively recent idea. 
It has been an axiom of the United States constitution right from the 
start, but it is only in the twentieth century that most countries have 
followed her example. In the past, state churches were the rule. They 
still exist in some countries. Nominally, Britain still has a state church, 
and her head of state must be an Anglican. Most Muslim countries give 
state recognition and special status to Islam, and some are actually 
theocracies: that is, there is no real distinction between secular and 
priestly rule, and Islamic law is the law of the land. 

These theocracies are, in fact, a modern survival or revival of what 
was the norm. In antiquity, the state was identified with the god its 
people worshipped and infidelity was treason. Israel was like all the 
rest in this respect-the great Jewish philosopher Philo called Israel a 
'democratic theocracy', using the word 'democratic' to signify that all 
its people, irrespective of rank, were equal under God's law. That was 
unusual in the Ancient Near East, for in most states the ruler was also 
an emanation of the god, or high priest, or both. It was the Persians, 
under Cyrus, who found it convenient, as imperialists, to accord reli- 
gious toleration in their empire. Their liberalism made it possible, for 
instance, for the Jews to return from Babylon to Jerusalem and resume 
worship in the Temple there. The Greek successors to the Persian Empire 
maintained, on the whole, this policy of toleration, and when the Ro- 
mans succeeded the Greeks they, too, permitted a variety of religious 
worship provided it did not challenge the state. Hence Jesus's prudent 
words: 'Render, therefore, to Caesar the things which are 

106 / The Quest for God 

Caesar's, and to God the things which are God's.' 

It was Christianity which began the tradition of religious independ- 
ence because it emerged in an empire where it was usually tolerated 
but had no connection with the state. Imperial governments sometimes 
turned on it furiously, precisely because it was so successful and attract- 
ive, and Christians were transformed into living torches or thrown to 
the lions or crucified. But as a rule the church was allowed to exist, 
provided it made itself inconspicuous. Thus for over 300 years it de- 
veloped its organisation and internal law all by itself, without the help 
or hindrance of the state, and this was a novelty. Hence, when Chris- 
tianity eventually became the religion of the Roman Empire, in the 
fourth century AD, the church was already formed and characterised 
by its own independent history, and its institutions were autonomous 
and capable of defending themselves. When, in post-Roman times, 
Europe was progressively Christianised, the church acquired a monop- 
oly of all religious worship and was closely identified with the secular 
power, but it nevertheless preserved its own identity-it was never 
Erastian. In the eleventh century, under Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII, 
during what was called the Investiture Contest (the right of the church 
versus the right of the king to choose bishops), the church showed that 
it was willing to challenge and fight the state to preserve its autonomy 
and to assert its rights over ecclesiastical matters. 

Hence, though the Christian Church, especially in its Roman Catholic 
branch, is often seen as an instrument of oppression-and sometimes 
was an instrument of oppression-it was in fact the first institution in 
history to stand up systematically to the claims of the state. This became 
of enormous importance in Europe and was one reason why, unlike 
the rest of the world, freedom began to be established there. Hildebrand 
undoubtedly saw himself not only as a servant of God, but as a cam- 
paigner for justice and liberty under the law, and one who in con- 
sequence had to endure great and bitter sufferings. Hence his dying 
words: 'I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.' 

My reading of the history of Christianity is one reason why I, unlike 
many people in Britain and the United States, refuse to see the Roman 
Catholic Church, to which I belong, as an authoritarian institution. It 
is that of course, at any rate in theory, but 

The church, dogma, authority, order and liturgy / 107 

it is much more than that. What I am doing in this chapter is to examine 
why it is I value and love my church and to try to convey a sense of this 
value and love to others who do not share my faith. Now in one sense, 
and a very real sense, this affection is based on familiarity. Catholicism- 
the Holy Roman Catholic Church-Rome-the Scarlet Woman-the Whore 
of Babylon-has no terrors for me because I am as used to it as a much- 
loved old teddy bear or a favourite armchair or a smelly old favourite 
dog. I was born a Catholic and my family has always been Catholic. I 
come from the north of Lancashire, which for complicated reasons that 
I need not particularise-they are set out in my book Elizabeth I: a Study 
in Power and Intellect-w as never Protestantised in the sixteenth century. 
There is also an Irish strain in my family, from the Catholic South. So 
I think I can honestly say there is not one drop of Protestant blood in 
my body. Occasionally I boast of this fact, which my wife Marigold 
judges to be childish. I have, as it were, been married to the church all 
my life and am used to her ways, whether they be slatternly or tiresome, 
noble, loving, admirable, foolish or insupportable. Quite apart from 
anything else, I have a fondness for old institutions which have high 
pretensions but are also timeworn and manipulable, theoretically rigid 
but in practice accommodating, which demand everything but will 
settle in practice for less, often much less. I found exactly the same with 
the army, in which I spent two happy years as a National Serviceman. 
Here was a totalitarian institution living under martial law and commit- 
ted to efficiency at any human cost, but which in practice-once you be- 
came familiar with her habits-was quite a comfortable set-up. You had 
to know your way around the army, but once you acquired this know- 
ledge and the knack of utilising it-and not all acquired the knack, by 
any means-the institution held no real terrors. It could, of course, deal 
you a painful and unexpected blow once in a while (so can the Catholic 
Church), but in general it is a dear old thing. 

Now the Catholic Church certainly does not see itself as a dear old 
thing, so perhaps the next thing I should do is to describe how it sees 
itself. In the first place it does not see itself, as others often do, as a for- 
midable cluster of buildings round an enormous Baroque church: the 
Vatican. Nor does it see itself as a collection of black-suited or gor- 
geously vestmented ecclesiastics: the clergy. 

108 / The Quest for God 

It sees itself, rather, as something ghostly, mysterious and poetic, and 
this self-vision is not entirely fanciful either. In certain moods it is abso- 
lutely sincere. Strictly speaking, 'church' from the Latin ecclesia, the 
Greek ek-kalein ('to call out of') signifies a convocation or an assembly. 
The Jews figure in the Greek Old Testament as the Chosen People before 
God, especially when they assembled before Mount Sinai to receive the 
Law. The early Christians, by calling themselves an ecclesia, saw them- 
selves as the heirs to that elect people. In the church God 'calls together' 
his people from all over the world. The Greek term for this, Kyriakon, 
whence we get the word church, or in German Kirche, means 'what be- 
longs to the Lord'. 

But from the very beginning these etymological realities have been 
smothered in metaphor and imagery by writers who have served the 
church with overwhelming passion and devotion-sometimes losing 
their lives in the process. The church is the mystical body of Christ; it 
is a sheepfold where the sheep are safe, but also the flock-the flock of 
God. It is a cultivated field, a vineyard, a forest of olive trees. It is also 
a building. Jesus Christ compared himself to the stone the buildings 
rejected but which was made into the corner-stone. The church is also 
a rock on which the building is erected. It is a family, a house, a dwelling 
place, a holy temple. The people of the church are the living stones from 
which the temple is built. It is also the bride of God, the 'spotless spouse 
of the spotless lamb', she whom Christ 'loved and for whom Ire de- 
livered himself up that he might sanctify her'. St Augustine, in a striking 
passage, says that, just as Eve was formed from Adam's side, so the 
Church was 'born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging on the cross'. 

It is important to remember, all the time while we are looking at this 
fanciful imagery, that what is meant by the church is not the Vatican 
or those ecclesiastics, but the living church of countless souls seen col- 
lectively. Otherwise one dissolves in laughter. But if the church is seen 
as this mystic unity of souls, longing for goodness and to be united to 
God and sharing his love, the metaphors make sense. In a way, the 
church is an enormous abstraction. That is how Clement of Alexandria 
sees it: 'Just as God's will is Creation and is called "the World", so his 
intention is the salvation of men, and is called "the Church".' Building 

The church, dogma, authority, order and liturgy / 109 

this thought, the great statement of faith. Lumen Gentium, which the 
Second Vatican Council adopted as one of its Apostolic Constitutions, 
puts it as follows: 

The Eternal Father, in accordance with the utterly free and mysterious 
design of his wisdom and goodness, created the whole universe, and 
chose to raise up men to share in his own divine life. . . [He] determ- 
ined to call together in a holy church those who should believe in 
Christ. This family of God is gradually formed and takes shape 
during the stages of human history. . . [It was] already present in figure 
at the beginning of the world [and] prepared in marvellous fashion 
in the history of the people of Israel and the old alliance. . .it will be 
brought to glorious completion at the end of time. 

The church, then, is more than a convocation, a gathering, it is the 
actual process, also, whereby men and women are saved and share 
God's divinity. Yet it is also a human institution as well as a divine one. 
It is visible as well as mystical, and it does manifest itself in powerful 
buildings and gorgeously attired clergymen-and rulers and bureaucrats 
and red-tape and belligerence and sheer idiocy at times. There is in fact 
a striking passage written by St Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a great 
servant of Almighty God who founded the magnificent Cistercian Order, 
and preached a Crusade, and was the friend and ally of popes-and their 
critic and opponent- who made his considerable weight felt throughout 
the Christendom of the twelfth century. St Bernard was bitterly aware 
that the church was worldly as well as divine and said so: 

O humility! O sublimity! Both tabernacle of cedar and sanctuary of 
God; earthly dwelling and celestial palace; house of clay and royal 
hall; body of death and temple of light; and at last both object of scorn 
to the proud and bride of Christ! She is black but beautiful, O 
daughters of Jerusalem, and even if the labour and pain of her long 
exile may have discoloured her, yet heaven's beauty has adorned 
her too. 

This is how I have come to see the church, as a fallible human institu- 
tion which has been capable of great enormities, which is still liable to 
misjudgments and even folly, but nonetheless in some ways radiates 
the divine. I love it-and I watch it with a wary and critical eye. I do not 
believe that there is no salvation outside the church. This doctrine makes 
no sense at all and I find 

110 / The Quest for God 

it hard to accept that it was ever seriously taught by anyone who under- 
stands what the church, and salvation, is about. There is some misun- 
derstanding here-a host of misunderstandings, I suspect. There is a 
significant passage in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 10: 

Then Peter opened his mouth and said. Of a truth. I perceive that 
God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth 
him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. 

That puts the matter plainly enough. God gave all of us a conscience, 
whatever church we belong to, or whether we belong to none. That 
conscience is the instrument of absolute morality, of Natural Law, and 
if we follow it, we cannot go wrong. But the conscience in its natural 
state I imagine to be rough-hewn. It needs to be sculpted and refined 
and polished, needs to be made into what we call the informed con- 
science. That is the process of moral education, and it is best conducted 
within a church and a family which belongs to the church. Which 
church? What the Catholic Church says is this, and I quote from the 
Decree on Ecumenism enacted by the Second Vatican Council: 

For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the univer- 
sal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation 
can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter 
is the head, that we believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings 
of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of 
Christ into which all those who should be fully incorporated who 
belong in any way to the People of God. 

This apparently exclusive claim is then qualified in a number of ways. 
First, 'All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated 
into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with 
good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the 
Catholic Church.' Furthermore, 'many elements of sanctification and 
of truth are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic 
Church. . .Christ's spirit uses these churches and ecclesiastical communit- 
ies as means of salvation.' 

The official Catholic line, therefore, is that the Catholic Church con- 
stitutes the direct and obvious and surest line to salvation, but that one 
can get there perfectly well through the route of other 

The church, dogma, authority, order and liturgy /111 

Christian churches. It then adds-and few will disagree-that unity is 
nevertheless most desirable and we should all work towards and pray 
for it. I am going to deal with the relationship between the church and 
the Jews (and indeed other non-Christians) in the next chapter. Here it 
is simply necessary to say that the Catholic Church no longer claims, 
if it ever did, that good men and women cannot get to Heaven except 
through Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. 

The position I have reached, after a lot of thought and some experi- 
ence, is as follows. There are all kinds of ways to God. In Chapter 16 of 
St John's Gospel, Jesus says: 'In my father's house are many mansions.' 
This is an unfortunate mistranslation, but it is a striking phrase none- 
theless, and what Jesus means is obvious. There is room for everyone 
in Heaven and not just room for all, but for all types. God, in his infinite 
wisdom, and in his insatiable curiosity and love of variety, made men 
and women very different. He poured the genes, as it were, into a gi- 
gantic celestial melting pot, and they come out within a united frame- 
work but in infinitely varied combinations. Therein is the delight and 
genius of mankind. God does not want a uniform spiritual personality. 
He wants the mystics and the activists, the crusaders and the praying 
monks and nuns, those whose mission is in the world and those whose 
work is contemplation. Everyone who recognises God and wishes to 
serve him will have strong instinctual ideas of how this service can best 
be performed and in what institutional context, or none. And these 
ideas can be further shaped by prayer for God's guidance. In the end, 
the individual has to take the responsibility and make a choice as to 
what is best for her or him. That is exactly what the conscience is for. 

After what is already a fairly longish lifetime in the Catholic Church, 
my view is that it is an institution which provides unrivalled opportun- 
ities for most people to get to know and understand and serve God. In 
one way or another it can accommodate a remarkably wide variety of 
souls, and does in fact house over a billion-it has 'many mansions' of 
its own. But it cannot serve all temperaments equally well. Not only do 
I believe there is salvation outside my church; I also think that, for some 
people, salvation is more likely outside my church-in other churches 
or in no church. 

112 / The Quest for God 

Having said that, however, I must add that my experience, and my 
knowledge of history, shows me that the riches of Catholicism are 
enormous-much greater than anyone outside the church can possibly 
imagine-and the more people who enjoy them, the better. I want 
everyone I love to be part of the church because I am acutely conscious 
of the comfort and security, the stability and certitude, the happiness 
and the wisdom-yes, and the freedom-which being a Catholic has 
brought to me. I want to share these gifts. But I proceed cautiously. I 
never proselytise, as such. I know people who do, like my old friend 
the Earl of Longford, himself a convert of half a century or more, who 
is anxious to bring everyone whatever into the church and makes his 
feelings plain. I prefer to let the Holy Spirit work in people's hearts 
slowly and silently. Hence, when someone comes to me and asks for 
advice about becoming a Catholic, I give it as truthfully as I know how. 
If I perceive that they are ready, and keen, I arrange for them to have 
professional instruction. If a dear friend comes to me for advice, I 
sometimes give preliminary instruction myself. I always respond pos- 
itively when the question of the church comes up in conversation among 
my friends. I want to help-I do help when asked or when it is clear my 
help is needed and will be useful. But I also confess my own woeful 
ignorance and shortcomings and uncertainties. I never pretend that 
conversion to Catholicism is easy or simple or the solution to all ills of 
the spirit. Indeed, it may be the beginning of new ones. But it is, for me, 
the source of immense happiness, and I want to share it if possible-if it 
is, in fact, God's will. 

One reason I find great comfort in the Catholic Church is its sense of 
authority. I am in some ways a chaotic person, a wild person, and I 
need discipline. A lot of that discipline I can impose upon myself. For 
a quarter of a century I have been a self-employed freelance writer, and 
during that time I have produced a number of very long and complic- 
ated books: that requires self-discipline and I am capable of providing 
it in full measure in my professional life. But there are other areas in 
which I require discipline from outside. I recognise the fact and I look 
to the church to provide it. Many people feel like me. They want some 
external discipline of the spirit, they need the help of some informed 
and insistent and confident guide to push them in the right direction 
and keep 

The church, dogma, authority, order and liturgy / 113 

them moving. They think the Catholic Church does this better than any 
other institution of its kind, and they are right. 

They want certitude as well as discipline. Here again, the Catholic 
Church provides it. It does not say: it is likely that God wants this or 
that, or that he may require us to believe this doctrine and to perform 
that duty. The Catholic Church speaks the language of 'must' and 'will' 
and 'is' and 'therefore', not of 'might' and 'maybe' and 'on the other 
hand'. A very large number of people require this certitude. They find 
life complicated and difficult to understand. They are not skilful at 
working out what it means to them and what they ought to do in all 
circumstances. They have views and opinions, of course, and likes and 
dislikes; but there are large areas where they need firm truths to cling 
on to and firm instructions as to their path ahead. They like a church 
which lays down the spiritual law and insists on it and, insofar as it lies 
in its power, enforces it. The Catholic Church is such a body. Especially 
under the present pope, John Paul II, it has made its teaching absolutely 
clear on a large number of points of conduct, not least those which are 
particularly contentious and difficult and where public opinion is not 
on the side of strictness-such as birth control and abortion and divorce. 
John Paul's many and detailed encyclicals have clarified Catholic 
teaching on virtually the whole range of faith and morals, and they 
have been accompanied by the publication of the largest and most 
comprehensive catechism ever issued by the church, which outlines, 
explains and justifies the faith, citing scriptural and patristic authority, 
with admirable lucidity and force. The Catholic Church, under this 
formidable pope, has reinforced its reputation for being unyielding and 
changeless in essentials of faith, and for insisting on teaching what it 
sees as the truth, without the smallest concession to current fashion or 
popular clamour or temporary expediency. That is certainly what I 
want, it is plainly what an enormous number of Catholics by birth want, 
and it seems to be also what a great many from other Christian churches, 
or no churches, want too. In the two societies I know best, the United 
States and Britain, large numbers of people are turning from the moral 
chaos they find in the contemporary world, and the uncertain teachings 
of the churches into which they were born, to the sureness and stead- 
fastness of Catholicism. 

224 / The Quest for God 

Whence does this church derive the authority it insists on displaying? 
The argument runs as follows. Jesus Christ always spoke with a note 
of authority. He was gentle and compassionate, the very reverse of ag- 
gressive. On the contrary, he was wonderfully persuasive and beguiling. 
But he did not mince words on the salient points, he never prevaricated 
or dodged issues or left his hearers in doubt. He spoke with all the au- 
thority vested in him by his Father and he spoke to be obeyed. At times 
he displayed righteous anger, against those who knew the truth but 
did not teach it or wantonly neglected it or obscured it, and against 
those who openly flouted God's wishes to the scandal of the innocent. 
On these occasions he did, indeed, display the Wrath of God. I do not 
know whether it is correct to characterise him as authoritarian, because 
he had no power except that which radiated from his own personality 
or was conveyed by his miraculous gifts of healing. But he was an au- 
thority figure: a leader, a teacher and a charismatic head of mission. 

Christ's appointment of the Apostles, 'the Twelve', prepared the way 
for his own departure and ensured the continuity of his mission. They 
were an elect, a chosen group who understood his teaching and were 
commanded by him to propagate it. He specifically gave them the au- 
thority and the charismatic ability to do so, and they began their historic 
mission on the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit breathed into 
them and gave them skills of communication which, we are told, were 
miraculous. Their direct successors, by apostolic appointment, were 
the bishops, and it is a source of great pride in the Catholic Church-and 
a certain scepticism among historians of antiquity-that from the very 
beginning of the church the apostolic succession has been uninterrup- 
tedly maintained. 

The bishop is primarily a teacher, in Latin magister. He alone possesses 
the complete panoply of teaching authority and the administrative and 
disciplinary powers which necessarily accompany it. He sits in the 
teacher's chair, in Greek kathedra, and so his church, where the chair is 
next to the high altar, is called a cathedral. The collective teaching power 
of the church, expressed through the college of bishops, with the pope 
at its head, is therefore known as the magisterium. All this is plain 
enough. We now come to the difficult bit, for many the stumbling-block. 

The church, dogma, authority, order and liturgy / 115 

Second Vatican Council and canon law lay down plainly that the pope's 
presiding presence is essential for the college of bishops to exercise their 
authority, and he must confirm or recognise what it decides for that to 
be valid. In addition, because the pope is the successor to St Peter, who 
was invested with special authority by Jesus himself, and is therefore 
the Vicar of Christ on earth, he can exercise 'unhindered' full, supreme 
and universal power over the whole church. In short, the bishops are 
powerless without the pope, but the pope has full power even without 
the bishops. When it comes down to it, the Roman Catholic Church is 
indeed an autocracy and the pope is an autocrat. He runs the church 
in more or less the same way Jesus Christ ran his mission. I am not sure 
that an authoritative church or a mission to the world can be run in any 
other way, and the fact that the church is an autocracy may well be one 
reason it has survived for 2,000 years and is still flourishing. The pope's 
powers are administrative and disciplinary and pastoral. But he also, 
and above all, has teaching power, and there his authority is at its 
highest. But it is also restricted. The pope cannot teach error when he 
is speaking ex cathedra, from his chair, on matters of faith or morals, 
and addressing the church, urbi et orbi. 

Note that important limitation. Modern popes have a habit of making 
announcements or giving a little homily from the window of their 
private apartments, overlooking St Peter's Square, at noon on Sunday, 
popping out like a cuckoo clock dead on time. These discourses are 
sometimes of no consequence and sometimes significant, but they are 
not infallible. Nor are the papal encyclicals, which are guides to and 
interpretations of the faith rather than ex cathedra pronouncements. 
They usually have great authority and often reiterate teachings of the 
church which are indeed essential parts of the magisterium, but an en- 
cyclical is not an infallible document as such. Needless to say, if the 
pope goes in for weather forecasting or political pronouncements, what 
he says is his opinion, no more. The present pope evidently has a horror 
of capital punishment, but the church does not teach that it is wrong. I 
feel at liberty to dissent from the pope on a number of issues. He has a 
hostility towards the free enterprise system which springs from his 
peculiar background in Poland and which leads him to put it on the 
same moral level as collectivist economic 

116 / The Quest for God 

systems. I find this nonsensical and annoying. But then I find the 
philosophy of Husserl, to which the pope is greatly attached, nonsensical 
too, and the philosophy of Heidegger, who took over many of Husserl's 
ideas, deeply annoying. So what? We disagree, and that is all. 

But I also listen to the pope with respect, because he is wise and ex- 
perienced and the Holy Spirit is with him when he speaks on faith and 
morals, and no doubt at other times too. And when the pope does speak 
ex cathedra, on the central points of faith and morals, I follow him. To 
be frank, I do not always feel tested on this issue. The last great dogma 
proclaimed by the church was the Assumption of Our Lady. The 
Mother of God did not die naturally, she was assumed into Heaven. I 
find no difficulty in accepting this teaching. It is not something which 
particularly interests me or which seems of much importance, though 
it is obviously important to many theologians. The pope and the collegi- 
ate church wills it, so I accept. It might be a different matter if the church 
suddenly produced, as it often rumoured it might, a dogma insisting 
that Mary is the Co-redemptress. This would smack to me of Mariolatry 
and my gorge might rise. On the other hand, it might not. I will face 
that problem when I come to it, if ever. My conscience will be my guide. 
I recall a testy remark by Hilaire Belloc, made when someone drew his 
attention to some Vatican nonsense: 'What can you expect from an in- 
stitution run by a pack of Italian clergymen?' The nonsense was not a 
dogmatic pronouncement, needless to say, but you see the drift of Bel- 
loc's thought. I return to my comparison of the church with the British 
army. The army commands, and I obey. When so ordered, I go over 
the top and take part in the attack. But I do not necessarily believe that 
the Commander-in-Chief is a military genius. 

There is a further role to be played by a church which is sure of its 
teaching and not afraid to speak its mind-the battle for life. I often reflect 
on the disasters of the twentieth century and wonder what fresh horrors 
the twenty-first will bring. We have learned some lessons from the 
twentieth. In particular we have learned to fear the state and see it as 
it is: useful, even friendly when small and chained, a mortal enemy 
when it breaks its constitutional bonds. So that, I hope, will not be the 
problem during the twenty-first century-we have got the totalitarian 
virus out of our system. 

The church, dogma, authority, order and liturgy / 117 

though it is well to remember that China, with over a billion people, is 
still infected. But I think it is already evident what we will have to fear 
in the new century. In our own, we allowed vicious men to play with 
the state and paid the penalty with scores of millions done to death by 
state violence. The risk in the twenty-first century is that we will allow 
men-and women too-to play with human life itself. And by play I mean 
to use and abuse and change the life-forces as though there were no 
laws except those we ourselves determine. 

I was much struck by an exchange which occurred in September 1994 
at an Oxford conference on medical ethics which my wife organised at 
St Anne's College. One of the speakers, the British journalist Melanie 
Phillips, used the phrase 'the sanctity of human life'. Another, a 
dauntingly clever philosopher, interjected: 'Now wait a moment-let's 
look at that expression, "the sanctity of life". You maybe right. Perhaps 
human life is sacred to us. But I don't know it as a fact. Prove it to me. 
Why should human life be sacred?' 

I found this a chilling moment, and many of those to whom I have 
described the incident found it chilling too. I had always thought that 
the sanctity of life was one of those 'truths' which sensible men and 
women 'hold to be self-evident'. It did not need to be proved. It just 
was. Proving it is not easy. I doubt if I could prove it. But then I do not 
need to prove it because I know it to be true just as surely as I know 
that I am a human being. I think most of us feel that way. There are a 
number of beliefs to do with behaviour and morality and civilisation 
which are so self-evident that the request to prove them creates uneas- 

Yet that, I fear, is precisely the kind of uneasiness we are going to 
experience in the twenty-first century. All kinds of axiomatic certitudes 
about human life will come under challenge from the innovators who 
plan to use new technologies to 'improve' the human condition, just as 
the Nazis and the Communists planned to use the state to improve it. 
There are, of course, continuities between the two forms of social engin- 
eering and human engineering. The Nazi plan was to 'cleanse' the hu- 
man race by an extreme form of eugenics which involved eliminating 
Jews, gypsies, Slavs and other types of Untermenschen. Communist eu- 
genics involved eliminating the exploitative bourgeoisie and 

118 / The Quest for God 

introducing a new, cleansed kind of human being, without acquisitive 
instincts. Looking back it is hard, now, to decide which was the more 
dangerous kind of nonsense. Both involved mega-murder and both 
rested on the assumption that those in authority have the right to make 
up the moral rules as they go along. The innovators who will endeavour 
to exercise power in the twenty-first century have, likewise, a contempt 
for absolute morality and a belief that morals and laws should be relat- 
ive, and changed from time to time to suit the convenience of men and 

Are they not having their will already? In 1994 in Britain alone, 
168,000 unborn children were lawfully destroyed. The number of legal 
abortions which have been legally conducted in the world exceeds the 
numbers of human beings killed by both the Nazi and the Communist 
tyrannies. At the other end of the life-span, euthanasia is already lawful 
in the Netherlands, or at any rate unpunished. Efforts are being made 
to introduce this approach in various other Western countries, including 
the United States and Britain. Abortion and euthanasia are merely the 
plinth on which the innovators-those who need to have it 'proved' to 
them that life is sacred-intend during the twenty-first century to erect 
a system in which they will be allowed to do virtually anything with 
human life which technology makes possible. 

So, with only a few years to go before the twenty-first century begins, 
John Paul II, a tenacious freedom-fighter for life, a positive crusader 
for life, published his 1995 spring encyclical. The Gospel of Life. It firmly 
restated the sanctity of human life as an absolute. It defended human 
life in all its manifestations in a manner robustly grounded in natural 
and divine law-truths presented as unassailable, unalterable and 
eternal-and it identified all acts terminating innocent human life, how- 
ever speciously defended by courts and parliaments, by philosophers 
and even churchmen, as forms of murder. Thus the Catholic Church's 
teaching on human life, as expounded by Pope John Paul, is internally 
coherent and consistent, massively brave and unfashionable, a hard 
doctrine to follow-as all good teaching is-and is being and will be res- 
isted, ridiculed and cursed by all the evil forces of the modern world. 
But it has been sent out to all men, with all the eloquence of an old pope 
who has personally lived through the Nazi and Communist tyrannies 
and knows a threat to life when he sees 

The church, dogma, authority, order and liturgy / 119 

one, and with all the resources of a large, ancient and well-organised 
church which is used to clinging to what it sees as the truth in the face 
of fashionable opinion. It is at such moments that I thank God that my 
church is an authoritarian one, and so is habituated to speaking out 
with a clear and authoritative voice, just as its founder Jesus Christ did 
two millenniums ago. 

There is another aspect of the church's existence which is important 
to me and which I will try to explain to myself, and to others. Belief in 
God is only the beginning of religious life. The substance of that life is 
learning to love God with the fullness and intensity he deserves, and 
to express that love by our behaviour in everyday life. A few rare souls 
among us can do this unaided. Their spiritual imagination is so strong, 
their disciplined nature so reliable, and their ability to engage in solitary 
worship-and to take themselves through a lifetime in the world without 
external supports-so complete that they can be, as the Greek Orthodox 
Church has it, idiosyncratic-they can devise their own practices of religion 
and observe them. Thus the hermits and mystics and coenobites. But 
that is certainly not for me or for the overwhelming majority of people. 
We need a framework of prayer and worship and sacramental celebra- 
tion. The communion, presence and solidarity of our fellow believers 
are essential to us. We lean on each other and hear each other's voices 
raised in prayer. Our faith is mutually reinforcing. Our good works act 
as exemplars to each other. A church full of people who have come to- 
gether to worship God of their own free will is a peculiarly blessed and 
happy assembly, and to be part of it, regularly, is a reinvigoration of 
belief and of our determination to lead useful and decent lives. 

The principal way in which the church provides this system of sup- 
port is through the liturgy. The liturgy of the Catholic Church is very 
old and retains elements of the ancient Israelite liturgy-readings from 
the Old Testament and the psalms, recalling the tremendous events of 
the providential story, the Fall of Man, the Flood, the escape from Egypt, 
the giving of the Ten Commandments and the coming to the Promised 
Land, the Exile and Return, the prophecies and the adumbrations of 
the Messiah. Embedded in the Catholic liturgy, in fact, are surviving 
Hebrew and Aramaic words, as well as the Greek kyrie eleison, which 
recalls the time when the Early Church was largely Greek-speaking. 

120 / The Quest for God 

liturgy of the Dark Age Church was in Latin, added to and modified 
in the Middle Ages, completely recast and updated during the sixteenth- 
century Counter-Reformation and finally rendered into the vernacular 
as a result of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council during the 
restless 1960s. But the essence of the liturgy has been constant for nearly 
2,000 years. Theologians have a rather elevated and flowery way of 
presenting the liturgy. They describe it as the work of the Holy Spirit, 
quoting the saying of Jesus in St John's Gospel (14:26): 'the Comforter, 
which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he 
shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, 
whatsoever I have said unto you'. Hence, the Spirit and the church are 
said to co-operate to manifest Christ and his work of salvation in the 
liturgy. Through the Eucharist and the other sacraments, the liturgy is 
the memorial of the mystery of salvation, and the Holy Spirit is the 
church's living memory. 

All that is undoubtedly true but, as I say, it is a little flowery and for 
me the liturgy is something much more down-to-earth. It is the routine 
of religion. We are told that Tibetan Buddhists put little paper wheels 
with prayers written on them into streams, and let the water spin the 
wheels and say the prayers, as it were. This was often cited to me, as a 
child, by pious nuns as an example of pagan superstition and silliness. 
But I do not think it silly. I am comforted by the idea of all those paper 
wheels spinning endlessly even when their fat and lazy monk-owners 
are asleep. A prayer- wheel keeps the machinery of devotion going, 
after a fashion. So, too, I am comforted by the thought of the whole vast 
machinery of Christian worship continuing, all round the clock, in a 
world where the sun never sets, in countless grand cathedrals and 
humble tin-hut parish chapels, muttered and murmured in every strange 
tongue under the heavens, as well as in the church's special language, 

The liturgy is a 'many-splendoured thing' and it is not surprising 
that it draws aesthetes and lovers of art, who might otherwise be ag- 
nostics or members of other religious organisations, into the Catholic 
Church. There was never a time in my life when I was not accustomed 
to participating in these ceremonies, seeing the flickering candles, 
smelling the incense, watching my parents and elder brother and sisters 
go up to receive the sacrificial host on 

The church, dogma, authority, order and liturgy / 121 

their tongues. Later, at Stonyhurst, I saw the full magnificence of the 
liturgy and participated in it, first as a treble in the choir, later as a 
member of the altar staff. In those days the full annual cycle of the 
liturgy was celebrated by the Stonyhurst Jesuits with a completeness 
and style to be found nowhere else, except possibly at Westminster 
Cathedral and, of course, in St Peter's itself. We prided ourselves on 
the way we did things, aided by holy altar vessels of immense beauty 
and value, by elaborately embroidered vestments going back to the 
sixteenth century and by all the time in the world to get things exactly 
right. The solemn preparations of Advent, the mournful ceremonies of 
Lent, the huge drama of Holy Week, culminating in the amazing cere- 
monies of Holy Saturday, the longest service in the entire calendar, 
followed by the blaze of glory on Easter Sunday-then, in rapid succes- 
sion, a whole series of splendid feasts. Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus 
Christi, St Peter and Paul, we did all these things with the precision 
and flourish which the Brigade of Guards brings to the ceremony of 
Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards parade-ground. There was, in- 
deed, a martial dimension to it all, for Stonyhurst vindicated the ultra- 
loyalism of English Catholics by the efficiency of its Officer Cadet Corps 
and the number of its alumni who had won the Victoria Cross-portraits 
of their fierce uniformed figures lined the walls of our dining-hall. So 
during High Mass on the feast of Corpus Christi, a sovereign's guard 
of honour in full uniform lined up before the High Altar just before the 
act of consecration, and when the priest raised the host so all the con- 
gregation could see it-bread turned into the living flesh of Christ-the 
guard presented arms with fixed bayonets and a great stamping of 
boots. I was once a member of this guard of honour and participated 
in this ceremony, which some may find bizarre but which we took for 
granted and delighted in. And that evening at Benediction we saw an 
annual miracle when 2,000 candles on the high altar, linked by an invis- 
ible thread of guncotton, were ignited at each side, so that the flame 
leapt from one to another, at dazzling speed, till all were alight. 

The liturgy is there to dazzle and excite, among other purposes, but 
I often think its chief function, in most lives, is simply to repeat itself, 
to function endlessly, from one day to the next, from one year to the 
next, in order to provide a reliable framework of 

222 / The Quest for God 

normality in religious life. All this is mechanical, but then the mechanism 
of religious continuity is necessary to provide the security of faith. Few 
if any of us are saints. We are not usually called to martyrdom. Our 
religious life lacks the drama of persecution and extreme sacrifice, we 
are confronted with humdrum temptations and everyday sins, and our 
spirituality and enthusiasm languish accordingly. The sheer mechanical 
activity of the liturgy, its endless whirring and clattering, its muttering 
and singing and chanting, its tinkling and incensing, provides a won- 
derful and, if we stop to ponder a second, meaningful support and daily 
nourishment for our spiritual life. We lean on the liturgy and so stay 
spiritually awake. It baptises us into the church, it punctuates our days 
throughout our life, it confirms us and marries us and, eventually, it 
buries us. I could not do without it and I rejoice that I am part of an 
immense multitude of a billion believers who cannot do without it 
either, and who share it and participate in it along with myself. That is 
all the work of the church, it is one chief reason why the church exists 
and it is a compelling reason, for me, to belong to it. Authority, organ- 
isation and structure have their uses. 


Separate brethren, Jews and Christians 

It has never seriously occurred to me that I could belong to any other 
church but my own. I love it, despite its faults. It is of my flesh and 
blood, as it were. To leave it would be irreparable loss; not to belong 
to it, daily deprivation. But I look at other churches, other faiths, other 
religious systems, and I feel no hostility. Very little envy either. In some 
ways I respect the Church of England. It has a magnificent liturgy in 
English, which it has not yet wholly abandoned. The sixteenth-century 
Protestants who rebelled against Rome and founded rival branches of 
the Christian Church had one undoubted gift, the ability to translate 
the old Latin services and the Vulgate of the Old and New Testaments 
into magnificent vernacular renderings. I love Cranmer's Prayerbook 
and I take immense pleasure in the solemn German of Martin Luther, 
set to music so marvellously in Brahms's Requiem in German, for ex- 
ample. Certainly in English there is no beating the words with which 
the Anglican Church solemnises a marriage or buries the dead. These 
services might have been scripted by Shakespeare. 

Then too the Anglicans have superb hymns, and a great many of 
them. Only recently have Catholics in England been encouraged to sing 
them by their own church and they form a huge addition to the richness 
and enjoyment of our services. It is also true that Anglicans have a much 
finer tradition of pulpit oratory, they take more trouble about the content 
and delivery of their sermons, and they have-at any rate until recently- 
a much better-educated clergy. But all these are little by comparison 
with the loss of self-confidence displayed by the Anglican authorities 
in recent decades, the weak, uncertain and often contradictory voices 
with which its bishops speak, the hedgings and pre- 

224 / The Quest for God 

varications and deliberate ambiguities of its Synods, as they are swayed 
by this pressure-group and that, and its almost total absence of spiritual 

I find that the Church of England and its overseas affiliates are at 
their best when seen as individual units. I have actually preached in 
Anglican cathedrals and churches in Australia, and found myself at 
home and comfortable among their keen congregations: they seem to 
share my vision of Christianity, and I theirs. And, in the autumn of 
1994, 1 spent a day with the Anglican church in Washington DC, going 
all over its magnificent Gothic cathedral, to my mind the finest building 
in the entire federal capital, which is spread at its feet, and teaching the 
boys and girls from the attached Anglican schools-or, rather, listening 
to them converse with me about the glorious and not-so-glorious history 
of their country. It was a hugely satisfying day and I felt I had visited 
a corner of Christianity where the faith is held strongly and young 
Christian minds are lovingly cultivated and encouraged. In England I 
visit Anglican churches often, and sometimes attend services. I admire 
the beauty of the one and the decorum of the other. But I do not get the 
feeling, though I pray for it to come, that God is present in the grandest 
Anglican cathedral- Wells, say, or Lincoln or Ely-in the same way I feel 
he is present in the humblest Catholic chapel. What is this? Prejudice? 
Sectarianism? Bigotry? At all events, the feeling is very strong for me, 
indeed insuperable. 

Then there is the huge chorus of different voices from the wider world 
of non-Catholic Christianity. These are changing and being added to 
all the time, and some of them are persuasive. In large parts of Latin 
America, for instance, the missionary Evangelical churches are carrying 
all before them in what used to be Catholic heartlands. They are very 
open and direct, simple and sincere. They preach the gospel and they 
preach the traditional morality of the Ten Commandments. They do 
not dabble in politics and indulge in Revolutionary Theology, as the 
radical wing of the Catholic Church in Latin America has done in recent 
decades, with lamentable results for all concerned. It is now clear that 
the poor of the towns and the peasants of the village do not want 
politics on Sunday-they can get that every other day of the week and 
much good it has done them, as they are painfully aware. 

Separate brethren, Jews and Christians / 125 

What they seem to want and respond to is what the Evangelicals 
provide-the story of salvation and what they must do, and not do, to 
be worthy of it. Now, belatedly, the Catholic Church in those parts is 
beginning to provide it too. 

This immensely successful Evangelical effort in Latin America- which 
I believe will eventually be followed by similar efforts in black Africa, 
where it will be equally readily received-has its origins in the United 
States, both in the Protestant churches of the Bible Belt and in the 
freelance varieties of religion which in America cluster round individual 
evangelists and preachers, especially those skilled in using mass-com- 
munications. In England, this kind of religion is seen as brash, embar- 
rassing, commercial, vulgar and materialistic. It is sneered at and feared 
by the educated middle classes, whether Christian, Jewish, agnostic or 
atheist, and so hated by the Anglican and Catholic hierarchies that they 
conspire together to use their considerable entrenched power to keep 
it off the airwaves and to prevent by law the creation of private religious 
radio or television stations. 

I take a much more relaxed view of American popular religion, per- 
haps because I have studied the huge and fruitful part it has played in 
American history-it it impossible, in fact, to understand American his- 
tory without it-and partly because I have been able to observe this kind 
of religion at work on the ground. Its effects on balance are immensely 
beneficial. The Bible Belt, so-called, is in many ways the morally healthy 
core of America. In the whole of the United States, I know of no more 
religious city than Dallas in Texas. To those who have never been there 
its image is indelibly etched by a ridiculous TV soap-opera, falsely 
portraying it as a centre of ruthless business, greed and lust. It is in fact 
a much God-fearing place, the centre of a district known for its churches, 
seminaries, religious colleges and universities, excellent Christian 
schools and church institutions of all kinds, flourishing mightily. It is 
the kind of place where all the family sit down to meals together and 
a grace is said before and after them, and a visiting lecturer, like myself, 
is requested, before a meal begins: 'Professor Johnson, will you ask a 
blessing of God?' 

For that matter, I have also attended popular religious meetings in 
the United States, which are part of a long tradition going back to the 
early eighteenth century, beginning in camps held near the 

126 / The Quest for God 

rough frontiers of the expanding country. There is very little to object 
to them and much to commend them to all branches of the Christian 
faith. These religious enthusiasts speak to the human heart and get a 
rich response. They have much more in common with Jesus Christ, a 
popular evangelist himself, than the hierarchs of Rome and Canterbury 
care to admit. Immense opportunities exist for this kind of direct, per- 
sonal and popular religion all over the world, not least among nearly 
four billion Asians, and I hope that the Catholic Church, which has 
been evangelising Asia now for the best part of five centuries, with in- 
different success, will start to learn something from these despised 
American preachers. 

Some question whether the Christian churches, let alone the freelance 
evangelists, ought to penetrate the heartlands of rival faiths like Islam, 
Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto and Hinduism. I think they should, 
indeed must. Christianity is a missionary faith, or it is nothing. We feel 
its message is the truth; not indeed the only truth-for elements of truth 
are to be found everywhere in nature and in Natural Law-but the spe- 
cially revealed truth, which we have been privileged to receive and are 
bound in conscience to share with others. My faith is everything to me, 
the key to happiness in this world and the next, and I would be crimin- 
ally remiss not to want and strive to give it to others if I can. I do not 
doubt that there are valuable elements in all these long-established 
faiths. We must examine and, if suitable, incorporate or imitate them. 
But all the Afro-Asian religions I have been able to examine, historically 
and doctrinally, seem to me to have serious shortcomings and some 
have aspects which are positively evil. 

I would not be happy if I did not believe Christianity is ultimately 
committed to the evangelisation of all Asia, so that the vast majority of 
the souls who live there will eventually be baptised and educated in 
my faith. At the same time, we must not shut our eyes to the fact that, 
in parts of Africa, a war of religions is taking place at the frontiers where 
Islam and Christianity meet. Islam is by nature a militant religion and 
in the Sudan and East Africa, for instance, and in parts of West Africa, 
it is using state power to persecute or stamp out or forcibly convert 
Christian communities, tribes and nations. These efforts have to be 
resisted, and the power of the Christian churches mobilised to repel 
such Islamic invasions. We must further mobilise Christian resources 
to put pressure 

Separate brethren, Jews and Christians / 127 

on Islamic states to practise religious toleration, as we do to Islamic 
communities in our midst, and to secure equality of rights for Christians. 
We must not hesitate to evangelise Islamic territory, not least where 
the theocracy holds sway. The Arab masses of North Africa and the 
Middle East, the Hindus of the Indian subcontinent, and the Buddhists, 
animalists, Shintoists and Confucians of East Asia, as well as the 
Muslims of Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, have a right to hear the 
Gospel so they can freely choose to follow it. The twenty-first century 
must be, and I think will be, a missionary century, like the nineteenth 
before it. 

My mind is much less clear about the relationship between Christian- 
ity and the Jews. When I wrote my History of Christianity in the early 
1970s, I learnt a great deal about my own faith which had hitherto been 
obscure or quite unknown to me. In particular I was able to explore its 
roots in Judaism and to discover how deep and strong and intricate 
they were. There is virtually no belief or practice in Christianity which 
does not have some antecedent in the religion of ancient Israel, and the 
overlap between modern Christianity and modern Judaism is consider- 
able. When I became aware of all this I determined, if I found the time 
and opportunity, to investigate the history of the Jews too, and I even- 
tually did so later in the 1970s decade. The result was my A History of 
the Jews. 

While preparing this book, I not only conceived an admiration for 
the Jewish people in history, whose spirit and resourcefulness and sheer 
intelligent fidelity has allowed them to survive so much persecution 
and suffering over so many long, hard centuries, but I acquired know- 
ledge of and much affection for the Jewish faith and practice of religion. 
Jewish prayers are often moving and pregnant with illuminating 
thoughts. Jewish moral theology is often superior to the Christian 
equivalent, in my judgment. Jewish teachers have been at it twice as 
long, to begin with, and they have not been burdened, as Christian 
theologians and teachers have been, by the immensely complicated 
dogmatic theology of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Eucharist, 
which has led to so many controversies and splits and schisms within 
Christianity. The Jews have escaped all that, and they have in con- 
sequence been able to devote more time and thought to moral behaviour. 
Indeed, that is what Judaism is really about-what a Jew should do or 
not do. As a result, they have acquired insights into perennial 

128 / The Quest for God 

and difficult problems of morality which have been denied to Christians. 
In particular, the Jews have been skilful at striking a correct balance 
between the duties of the individual to him or herself, and his or her 
duties to the community. They have usually got the balance right and 
that is one reason, I discovered while writing my book, that the Jews 
have proved so resilient in such adverse situations. The individual is 
given great and productive freedom, and partly as a result of this, the 
needs of the community are fully insisted on, and can be met. 

That is one reason why I welcome the reconciliation which has taken 
place between Christians and Jews-and particularly between the Cath- 
olic Church and the Jews-during my lifetime. I am not one of those who 
believe that anti-Semitism is rooted in Christianity-I know it is not, as 
a historical fact. But the Christian layer in the archaeological history of 
anti-Semitism is a particularly massive one, and for that reason alone 
the rapprochement which began with the efforts of that saintly German, 
Cardinal Augustine Bea, at the Second Vatican Council, is so important. 
In recent years Christian theologians and liturgists have been studying 
Judaism and discovering a surprising number of points in common. 
There is a significant passage in the new Catholic Catechism (paragraph 
1096) which recognises this and is worth quoting: 

A better knowledge of the Jewish people's faith and religious life as 
professed and lived even now can help our better understanding of 
certain aspects of Christian liturgy. For both Jews and Christians 
sacred scripture is an essential part of their respective liturgies: in 
their proclamations of the word of God, response to this word, 
prayer of intercession for the living and the dead, invocation of God's 
mercy. In its characteristic structure the Liturgy of the Word origin- 
ates in Jewish prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours and other liturgical 
texts and formularies, as well as those of our most venerable prayers, 
including the Lord's Prayer, have parallels in Jewish prayer. The 
Eucharist Prayers also draw their inspiration from the Jewish tradi- 
tion. The relationship between Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy, 
but also their differences in content, are particularly evident in the 
great feasts of the liturgical year, such as Passover. Christians and 
Jews both celebrate the Passover. For Jews, it is the Passover of his- 
tory, tending towards the future; for 

Separate brethren, Jews and Christians / 129 

Christians, it is the Passover fulfilled in the death and resurrection 
of Christ, though always in expectation of its definitive consumma- 

In addition to this, it became apparent to me, while preparing my 
Jewish history, not only that Jewish moral theology has a lot to teach 
Christians, as I have already noted, but that many of the great Jewish 
rabbinical scholars and theologians have left bodies of work full of 
riches for Christians to explore and use. In particular the great Mai- 
monides-wisest of all the Jewish thinkers, in my view-is someone who 
ought to be studied in Christian seminaries and colleges. I would like 
to see his Guide to the Perplexed widely read and anthologised, and 
presented and commented upon by Christian writers. 

Nevertheless, when all this is admitted, the awkward fact remains 
that the Jewish and Christian religions are, or at any rate appear to be, 
mutually incompatible. They teach things which are in violent and 
seemingly irreconcilable conflict. If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, as 
Christians must and do believe, then the Jews, in refusing to acknow- 
ledge the fact, reject the truth, and God's plan for humanity, and cut 
themselves off from the process of religious development which the 
Old Testament records before it lapses into a significant silence. The 
warnings about the Messiah, the foreshadowings of Christ's coming in 
the prophecies, are ignored, and the Jewish self-criticism which is so 
prominent in the second half of the Old Testament is seen to be 
abundantly justified. If Christ is God, then the Jews forfeit their claim 
to be a Chosen People, a priestly elect, a light to the Gentiles, and become 
the stiff-necked reprobates so roundly denounced by the prophets for 
their blindness and disobedience and defiance of God's word. Alternat- 
ively, if the Jews are right and Jesus, far from being the Son of God, is 
merely a false-Messiah, one of many, then the whole of Christianity is 
a delusion and the two millenniums of the church are a gigantic sham. 
Put thus bluntly, the quarrel between the religions is awesome. There 
appears to be no possible basis for compromise, no overlap at all. The 
two teachings, at their central point- Almighty God's programme for 
humanity-are as incompatible as it is possible for such things to be, and 
reconciliation is logically ruled out. 

I have often pondered on this tragedy, and discussed it not long 

130 / The Quest for God 

ago with an audience of highly educated Jews at a Jewish Book Week 
in North London. We could see no obvious way out of the dilemma. 
But then, as we observed, human intelligence is limited and human 
ignorance is great. By contrast, the power and scope of the divine wis- 
dom is limitless. In Chapter 11 of his great Epistle to the Romans, St 
Paul, Jew of the Jews and Christian of the Christians, speaks eloquently 
on this point: 'O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and know- 
ledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past 
finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath 
been his counsellor?' Who are we, then, to say there is no bringing to- 
gether in truth and harmony the beliefs of his Chosen People and those 
of the Children of Christ? It is not beyond the power of God to find a 
way and in his own good time to reveal it to us, Jew and Christian both, 
and then a deep and painful schism in the story of the spiritual devel- 
opment of humankind will finally be healed. It will surely be worth 
waiting for, this squaring by God of the Jewish-Christian circle. 


The four last things: death 

The first fact of life primitive man accepted, and pondered, was death. 
Mankind has been thinking about it ever since, for tens of thousands 
of years, during which billions of our species have met their deaths and 
disappeared; and after all that anxious cogitation, we are not much the 
wiser. The new Catholic Catechism begins its section on death by quoting 
the document Gaudium et Spes published by the Second Vatican Council 
in 1965: 'It is in regard to death that man's condition is most shrouded 
in doubt.' It is unusual for the Catholic Church to strike such a note of 

The church is also troubled, not to say confused, on the history of 
death. It teaches, through its magisterium-its role as the authentic inter- 
preter of scripture and early tradition-that it was sin which brought 
death into the world. Originally God had intended man to live for ever, 
even though his nature was mortal. Adam and Eve were destined to 
escape bodily death. By sinning, they invoked death-invented it almost- 
and left it as a fearful legacy to all their progeny. Death will be with us 
to the end of the world: as St Paul puts it in his First Letter to the Cor- 
inthians, 'The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.' 

The Catholic Church therefore asks us to believe that God altered his 
plan for mankind in a fundamental respect, when his new creatures 
behaved more badly than he had intended. It tells us, in effect, that the 
almighty, all-seeing, all-foreseeing God had not expected Adam to sin, 
and in his surprise and anger at Adam's disobedience, revoked his edict 
of bodily immortality and so recreated the earth as a vale of tears. All 
this seems very strange. Why had God not foreseen Adam's weakness- 
or Eve's propensity to listen to temptation and to tempt in her turn-and 
made his male creature stronger? And why did God permit Satan, in 

132 / The Quest for God 

guise, to upset his carefully considered plan to create a paradisal Garden 
of Eden with sinless and deathless inhabitants, and settle instead for a 
world full of sin and suffering? I cannot answer these questions. It seems 
to me far more likely that God knew perfectly well what he was doing 
when he gave Adam free will-that he knew his creatures would sin and 
thus invoke misery on themselves-but that he wished to create a moral 
drama in which sinful man would be redeemed by the passion and 
death of his own divine son made man. The sinless, deathless Adam 
and Eve in their semi-celestial garden are of little moral interest or sig- 
nificance. Their adoration of God, seemly though it might be, is no more 
valuable or edifying than the adoration of the angels, whose nature it 
is to adore. On the other hand, an imperfect, frail-willed man, a flawed 
creature, born in sin, living in suffering, exposed to all the evils and 
temptations of a rugged, dangerous world, who nonetheless, with the 
help of God's grace and mercy, and by virtue of the supreme sacrifice 
of his only son, manages to struggle successfully against his sinful 
nature and contrives in the end-just-to make himself worthy of joining 
God in Paradise: that is indeed a tale worth telling. But death is an in- 
dispensable element in it, a crucial function of the mechanism of salva- 
tion and redemption. If this argument is valid, the fact of death is not 
an accident, a modification of God's original plan, but absolutely central 
to his concept of creation. Death, then, is very much God's idea, and 
we are intended to think long and hard about it, to ponder its mysteries, 
and to shiver at its awesome inevitability. 

Nevertheless, a large part of mankind, hating and fearing death, has 
always striven to wish or magic it away, to play it down, to euphemise 
it, to try to conceal it from themselves. The Ancient Egyptians crowded 
their tombs with exact replicas of all the good things of this life to per- 
suade themselves that continuity of living and enjoyment was a fact. 
The dead man took with him all the things he would need precisely 
because death was not an end but a new phase of life, in which he would 
continue his pleasures, albeit now immortal. The Egyptians placed their 
cities of the living on the Right Bank of the Nile, their cities of the dead, 
their pyramids and tombs, on the Left Bank. So death was minimised 
to a mere crossing of the river-it was all the same land after all. 

The four last things: death / 133 

The famous Egyptian papyrus, 'The Book of the Dead', now in the 
British Museum, was called such only by modern Egyptologists. In fact 
it is not a celebration of death at all, but a denial of death, a manifesto 
against death, a celebration rather of immortality, of the continuity of 
life, but in a different place. 

Many societies have striven to make death a taboo word, at any rate 
in polite circles. The Roman gentry circled nervously round death, cir- 
cumnavigated it by periphrasis: discessit e vita-' he has departed from 
life' -they said of a dead friend. Or they said simply vixit, 'he has lived'. 
The Arabs put it a little more grandly: 'His destiny is finished.' We refer 
to 'the dear departed', 'the loved ones', who have 'passed away'. In his 
novel The Loved One, about 'Hollywood burial customs', as he put it, 
Evelyn Waugh satirised Forest Lawn cemetery and the extraordinary 
ingenuity with which its proprietors avoided any mention of death or 
other disturbing words. They did not even use the word cemetery, not 
knowing that it was an example of earlier euphemism-it is Greek for 
'sleeping place'. 'He is asleep', 'she fell asleep', often used of the death 
today, are expressions which were in common use 2,500 years ago. We 
too now emulate the Romans: when we hold a memorial service for the 
dead, we no longer call it that: it is 'a celebration for the life of' a person 
who is 'asleep', who has 'passed over', 'gone', 'departed this life'. Death 
is a topic we try to avoid. It has replaced the four-letter obscenities as 
the taboo-word. Fashionable novelists, who sprinkle their pages with 
genital and copulative expressions, and describe sexual, perverted and 
bestial acts of lust in lubricious detail-I do not say 'loving' detail, as 
love has little to do with it-are curiously reluctant to describe death, 
even though they spend much time in characterising the violence which 
leads to it. No novelist writing today is capable of depicting a deathbed 
scene with the sincerity it requires. Nor would they attempt to do so: 
it would be a turn-off for readers. The last great novelist to make a 
deathbed the climax of a novel was, as you would expect, Evelyn 
Waugh, who positively longed to look death in the face. But his death 
of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited (1945) was not well received. 
Many thought it a weakness in an otherwise triumphant narrative. Cyril 
Connolly had London drawing-rooms in fits with his cruel pastiche of 
what he called 'His Lordship's Expiry'. 

134 / The Quest for God 

It was a different matter in Victorian times, one of those periods in 
human history when death was magnified, talked about, minutely ex- 
amined and, almost, relished. The death of Little Nell in Charles Dick- 
ens' The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) seems to have had greater public im- 
pact than any other scene in the whole of nineteenth-century literature. 
It was Nell's end which caused the public to buy 100,000 copies of the 
novel, within six months of publication, in Britain alone, and to make 
it, in its day, Dickens' most successful work all over the world. Edgar 
Allan Poe, an expert on literary deaths, found it 'excessively painful', 
so harrowing to the senses that he doubted the morality of publishing 
it. The poet Edward Fitzgerald copied out by hand not only the death- 
passage itself but all other parts of the book dealing with Little Nell, so 
that he would have 'a kind of Nelly-ad or Homeric narration'. Thomas 
Carlyle, who liked to think of himself as totally unsentimental, found 
it 'overwhelming'. Daniel O'Connell, coarse political rabble-rouser 
though he was, burst into tears when he finished the passage, and 
hurled the book out of the window. (It was a portent of change to come 
when, in 1895, Oscar Wilde risked outrage by remarking: 'One must 
have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.') 

The Victorians, with their death-masks, their elaborate funeral pro- 
cessions and carriages (the one made for the Duke of Wellington's, in 
1852, was of cast-iron, weighed 20 tons and can still be seen in the crypt 
of St Paul's Cathedral), their mutes, wrapped knockers and mourning 
etiquette, looked death squarely and ceremoniously in the face. 
Deathbed scenes were elaborately recorded or committed to memory, 
and became part of family folklore, reverently told to children and 
grandchildren. My mother related to me numerous accounts of the 
deaths of her relations, great-aunts and the like, which were notable 
for their edifying circumstances, final sayings, last prayers and ejacula- 
tions, signs of the hand, etc. In my childhood, elderly priests, with much 
experience of tending the dying, had fine repertoires of these scenes. 
There was an extensive devotional literature on the theme. In the old 
days, death was a domestic, household, family affair, with the dying 
person upstairs in a well-attended bedroom with a fire in the grate, 
people downstairs walking softly and talking in whispers, straw in the 
street outside to muffle the noise of carriage- 

The four last things: death / 135 

wheels, the neighbours alerted to the impending event and sending 
regular and anxious enquiries. When the moment of death came, the 
entire watchful household and neighbourhood suddenly sprang to life 
to prepare the obsequies as ostentatiously as possible. Not only were 
public men, like Wellington and Lincoln, buried with fitting ceremony, 
but private funerals were grand affairs, students of form and arbiters 
of fashion counting the number of coaches, the splendour of the mutes, 
and the caparisons of the black carriage horses. I well remember the 
funerals of my childhood: the endless corteges of black-clad mourners 
trudging on foot behind the hearse and the carriages or limousines of 
the gentry, traffic at a standstill, everyone in the street stopping till the 
whole went by, the men raising their hats, women dabbing at their eyes 
with a handkerchief even if the deceased was unknown to them. Death 
was seen as an important event, to be publicly noted and decorously 
marked by a seemly display of pomp. 

Alas, it is very different now. Most people die in hospital, sparsely 
attended, if at all, by their families; often alone, save for professionals 
of the caring trade. We have lost the art of great state funerals. The last 
one of any note was Sir Winston Churchill's, a memorable affair to be 
sure. But the reason for this was that the old warrior had himself 
planned and replanned it for many years, down to the last detail. And 
Sir Winston was himself a Victorian-had actually fought as a soldier of 
the Queen, in India and the Sudan, some time before she died-so he 
knew exactly what he was doing. The funeral of John F. Kennedy, on 
the other hand, which might have been a comparable event, was a hasty, 
straggling affair, much more typical of our times. State obsequies since 
then have been still more poverty-stricken affairs. As for private funer- 
als, the chief ones of note are held for gangsters. 

Even the Vatican has given a lower profile to death in my lifetime. 
Time was when the death and burial of a pope was an event, presented 
urbi et orbi for all to see, wonder at and reflect upon. The greatest living 
artists, like Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, were called upon to super- 
intend a pope's funeral, to design the catafalques and effigies and 
mourning decorations, and later to exercise their skills on the pontifical 
monument in St Peter's. Antonio Canova, for instance, ended the 
Baroque epoch almost 

136 / The Quest for God 

at a stroke, and introduced neo-classicism, in 1783-7, with his stu- 
pendous tomb of Pope Clement XIV. 

Half a century ago there was considerable fuss when a pope died. 
When Pius XII finally succumbed in 1958, after a pontificate of nearly 
twenty years-as a child I had heard the 1939 announcement of his 
election on Vatican Radio-I hastened to Rome to find the entire city on 
tiptoe. The late pope's doctor and confidant, the Marquess Galeazzi- 
Lisi, a prominent figure in the Byzantine court which had clustered 
round Pius in his last years, was determined to preserve his master for 
posterity. He claimed he had recovered the Tost secret' of the 'ancient 
Egyptian system of embalming the body whole'. This struck me as 
strange, for it is well known to Egyptologists, indeed to anyone who 
pays a careful visit to the Ancient Egyptian gallery of a major museum, 
that the Egyptians never embalmed a body whole. They reverently took 
out the heart, entrails, etc. and placed them embalmed separately in 
what are known as Canopic Jars, with a different animal-god adorning 
each lid. However, Galeazzi-Lisi was sure of what he was doing and 
no one had the power, it seemed, to stop him. 

So the pope was embalmed whole, and therein lay a Roman comedy- 
tragedy. By the time I reached Rome the thing had been done, and the 
pope's body was lying in state in the Vatican, with a Swiss Guard at 
each corner of the open coffin. But the embalming had palpably not 
been a success, as the esprit de corps and a certain green pallor in the 
dead pope's face attested. The guards were evidently distressed, and 
the Roman mob, filing past the coffin, were appalled. They were fiercely 
devoted to the Roncalli Pope, who was a Roman himself, and they had 
expected to smell the odour of sanctity, as prelude to rapid canonisation. 
What they got was quite different. So the plan to make the pope an 
immediate saint by popular acclamation, as it were, was quietly put 
aside. At all events, the passing of Pius XII was the last of the great 
papal obsequies. Popes are now buried, if not quietly at least discreetly, 
and there is no fuss about their monuments. Even in Rome, then, there 
is a tendency to sweep death under the carpet. 

Yet death, whether we make much of it or little, remains a huge, un- 
comfortable fact. We all know we are to die. We all, at some time, give 
thought to death. How will we die? In agony or painlessly-suddenly 
or after much suffering? Will we face death well? 

The four last things: death / 137 

Will we be edifying in the way we go, or will we disappoint our friends 
and relations? Will anyone care, anyway? More and more fear a lonely 
death, and with reason. Or rather, it is not so much death people fear 
now-the doctors can usually make that painless and even insensible-as 
long periods of senility before it, while we are kept barely living by 
modern science, but lose our wits, our dignity and our savings, while 
our relatives grow increasingly impatient. 

I note a growing desire among people I know not for the traditional 
bona mors, the good death after weeks of illness, with the family around, 
all passion and suffering spent, and the soul easing itself reluctantly 
but painlessly out of the emaciated body, the loved ones given a dying 
blessing, the suitable last words duly recorded. Instead, the aspiration 
is for a sudden end, unexpected, instantaneous. My old climbing-friend 
Simon Fraser, with whom I walked the Highland summits and ridges 
for twenty years, had such a longed-for death. He had mounted his 
horse for the annual drag of his local hunt, of which he was master, and 
had just taken the hounds out of the policies of his pink-granite castle, 
when he was seized with a rare and unexpected heart-complaint, which 
killed him in a second. He was dead while still firmly seated on his fa- 
vourite hunter, and I have a photograph, taken a few moments before, 
showing him thus, the castle behind him. Everyone said, 'Oh, what a 
fine way to go.' But this is the very opposite of the traditional Christian 
sentiment. The Roman Missal, in its Litany of the Saints, specifically 
pleads: 'From a sudden and unforeseen death, deliver us, O Lord!' Few 
men or women are prepared for death if it comes suddenly. I have 
prayed all my life for a premonition of death, so that I have a chance 
to repent of my sins, to confess them and receive absolution. I think 
that most Catholics still probably share my view, and likewise pray for 
a timely death, not a sudden one. But I am not sure. 

What is certain is that most Christian churches have specific prayers 
and even ceremonies preparing the sick and dying for death. In the 
Catholic Church, the anointing of the sick is a special sacrament, given 
to those who are seriously ill or preparing for a major operation. The 
priest anoints the sick person with holy oil and says the words: 'Through 
this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with 
the grace of the Holy 

138 / The Quest for God 

Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you 
up.' This sacrament of anointing can be given not merely to those who 
are obviously dying, but to all the sick. It can be repeated if the illness 
is prolonged or if the sick person recovers and then has a further illness. 
But there is, in addition, the special administration of the Eucharist as 
viaticum to those who are about to leave this life. When the human soul 
is in extremis, the Eucharist is the sacrament of passing over from death 
to new life, from this world to the Father. All these comforting and holy 
administrations are available, and when my time comes to die I hope 
I shall be able to receive them-that is what I understand by a fortunate 

But death is a terrible thing, not only in its inevitability but often in 
its manner too. We like to think there is justice in death, just as there is 
certainly justice in the next life. But it is not so. The bad often die 
peacefully, the good in torment. Pope Honorius IV, not only a fine 
pastor of the church but a man of exemplary piety and kindness 
throughout his life, died such a prolonged and agonising death that 
those who saw him suffer were amazed that God should have subjected 
the good old man to such a final trial. Could it be, they wondered, that 
the purgatorial penalties for such light sins as he had committed were 
being imposed in this life, so he could pass more speedily to Heaven? 
That, at least, was their uneasy rationalisation. 

Recently I was made aware of the similar case of Christina Rossetti, 
by a fine exhibition of her works and life at the National Portrait Gallery 
in London. Miss Rossetti, the sister of the better-known poet and 
painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a lifelong Anglo-Catholic of the 
most devout kind, who led a life of selfless devotion to her family, to 
the poor and to the worship of God. Her poetry, which is at last receiv- 
ing the appreciation it merits, is not predominantly religious in tone-in 
many ways she is the English equivalent of Emily Dickinson-but when 
she touches on sacred themes her spirituality is profound and moving. 
Indeed it has occurred to me that, had she been a Catholic instead of a 
member of the Church of England, the movement for her canonisation 
would have already been under way. However that maybe, this saintly 
woman had the most appalling death. A letter survives, written imme- 
diately after her death by the woman who 

The four last things: death / 139 

attended her, describing her sufferings and reporting that Christina 
was so distraught towards the end that she had to be tied to the bed. 
The letter is a remarkable document for, though its contents are disturb- 
ing, its tone is radiant with the love and respect which Christina evid- 
ently aroused in those who were near her. Here was a death the very 
reverse of a bona mors in the conventional sense, but one which yet had 
a positive spiritual impact on those witnesses to it. Among Christina's 
greatest admirers was the poet Swinburne, who was deeply affected 
by her final sufferings. Immediately after her death he recorded his 
feelings in a remarkable poem, written apparently while he was half- 
drunk but still capable of composing finely. The manuscript of this 
poem, in irregular writing and stained with tears and liquor, also sur- 

There is, indeed, no spiritual pattern to death that the historian can 
discern. The courage and composure and serenity of the martyrs still 
astonishes me. I am particularly moved by the humble stoicism of St 
Peter, who felt he was unworthy to be crucified standing up, like his 
Master, and insisted on being put to death upside down, an amazing 
request in view of the fact that, to Romans, crucifixion was the most 
degrading of deaths anyway. On the other hand, the tranquil end of 
David Hume, the first confessed atheist, whose death was minutely 
recorded-by Boswell, of course-was also notable and caused annoyance 
at the time to true believers, who were accustomed to tell tales of the 
horrifying deaths of infidels and chronic sinners. The fact that Hume 
died calmly and without apparent fear was, in a curious way, a portent 
of the modern age. People are superstitious about the last acts or sayings 
of the dying and give them symbolic significance. But Famous Last 
Words are often apocryphal. Can Henry James really have left this life 
asking so characteristically: 'So it has come at last, this grey, distin- 
guished thing?' And were Bonaparte's last words indeed: 'Tete 
d'armee!'? Stalin died alone, on the camp bed in his cluttered office 
where he lived for the sake of security, so no final words are recorded. 
But he was found with one arm thrust out to Heaven in a last gesture, 
whether of alarm or fear or defiance is not clear. 

The death of Jesus Christ, prolonged and harrowing and contradictory 
as it was, should serve as a model for us all. I have often 

140 / The Quest for God 

thought about it, particularly since I acquired a recording of Haydn's 
meditation, for string quartet, on The Seven Last Words of Christ from the 
Cross. This unsurpassed work of genius, to my mind on a level with 
the final quartets of Beethoven, forms a musical commentary to the ut- 
terances of Christ, as he hung in agony, with their striking revelations 
of both his humanity and his divinity, and his final utter surrender to 
his Father's will and his redemptive role. Haydn's music brings out the 
sublimity of it all, not least the uncomfortable but necessary recognition 
that death can be a horrific experience even for the entirely innocent 
and for those most ready to embrace it. 

Christ's death was for a transcendental purpose, so it was positive, 
a beginning. That is the true Christian approach to death. One may not 
welcome death-few of us do, whatever we may say in advance-but we 
can train ourselves to accept it not as a negative event but as a positive 
one, an opening and an opportunity to move into a higher form of life. 
St Paul is most insistent on this. 'For me to live is Christ, and to die is 
gain.' Or again: 'The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will 
also live with him.' He wrote to Philemon: 'My desire is to depart and 
to be with Christ.' Many holy women have made the same point. St 
Teresa of Avila put it thus: 'I want to see God and, in order to see him, 
I must die.' The great French saint, Therese of Lisieux, is recorded to 
have said in The Last Conversations, T am not dying: I am entering life.' 
There are some remarkable reflections on dying in the works of St Igna- 
tius of Antioch, quoted in the new Catholic Catechism. He writes: 'There 
is living water in me, water that murmurs and says within me: Come 
to the Father.' And again: 'It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than 
to reign over the ends of the earth. Him it is I seek, who died for us. 
Him it is I desire, who rose for us. I am on the point of giving birth. . .Let 
me receive pure light; when I shall have arrived here, then shall I be a 

In all this writing on death, by great saints who had reflected much 
on the subject and approached their own death with eagerness, even 
with ecstasy, there is still no clear indication of what happens when 
death is actually accomplished and the soul quits the body. 'This grey 
distinguished thing', as James put it, is still a mystery, as it always has 
been. It is right to see death not as a 

The four last things: death / 141 

precipice into the abyss but as a bridge. But a bridge to what? There 
are precious few clues of any kind. But I am struck by St Ignatius of 
Antioch's reference to 'pure light'. It is a common metaphor which 
creeps into references to or descriptions of the experience of death; more 
than a metaphor, indeed, a physical description of what is seen-the 
darkness of the deathbed being suddenly illuminated by a great acces- 
sion of light. 'May perpetual light shine upon them'-the famous ejacu- 
lation of the Christian burial service is the summation of much apparent 
experience. This real rather than intuitive human knowledge of the 
moment of death, while fragmentary, crops up again and again, and I 
suspect it springs, at least in part, from those who not only came close 
to death but actually, in a clinical sense, were dead, then recovered. 
Such resuscitations are by no means rare and are not as carefully recor- 
ded as one would like. However, Professor Freddie Ayer, the philosoph- 
er, whose attitude to death I have already referred to, left a detailed 
description of his experience. He says that, unlike David Hume, whom 
he much admired, as a man as well as a confirmed atheist, he himself 
was not at all anxious to go when the moment came and is convinced 
'that I made an effort to prolong my life'. However, having as it were 
crossed over the River Styx, what happened next was 'very vivid'. He 

I was confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very 
painful even when I turned away from it. I was aware that this light 
was responsible for the government of the universe. Among its 
ministers were two creatures who had been put in charge of space. 
These ministers periodically inspected space and had recently carried 
out an inspection. They had, however, failed to do their work prop- 
erly, with the result that space, like a badly fitting jigsaw puzzle, was 
slightly out of joint. A further consequence was that the laws of nature 
had ceased to function as they should. I felt that it was up to me to 
put things right. 

Ayer's description then continues and we need not follow him into the 
trackless intricacies of Newtonian and Einsteinian astrophysics, of which 
Freddie, I suspect, had an imperfect knowledge, but which figured in 
his death-experience. It occurs to me that much of it, which was very 
characteristic of the Freddie we knew, was in fact a dream which signi- 
fied that the death-moment was past and immediately preceded his 
recovery of consciousness. But 

242 / The Quest for God 

the red light experience is another matter. Ayer himself compared it to 
the description of a friend of his, who had a heart-stoppage similar to 
his own, and who also remembered a powerful and intense red light, 
together with the feeling that she must stay close to it or follow it. 

A woman in her early forties recently told me of her experience as a 
sixteen-year-old, when she had an acute attack of a rare form of colitis 
and was given up for dead. Indeed, she firmly believes she was dead 
for a short time. She told me: 

I was in this tunnel, with a very powerful, intense light at the end, 
which seemed to be beckoning me, and I moved towards it up or 
along the tunnel. I was with my grandmother, who held my hand. I 
was not anxious to retrace my steps at all, but on the contrary wanted 
to approach the light, which was getting nearer. Then my grandmoth- 
er told me I must proceed no further but must leave her, and she re- 
leased my hand and told me to go back along the tunnel, which I 
was most reluctant to do. Some time later I began to recover conscious- 
ness, and when I became fully awake, I was told that my grandmother 
had died whilst I was insensible. 

This woman said she had recently come across a collection, printed in 
America, called Resuscitations, which described a variety of death-exper- 
iences undergone by men and women, and children, who had been in 
some way restored to life. Without exception, all referred to the bright 
light-intense, even painful as in Ayer's experience, but never hostile. It 
was invariably the central fact in their memory of the experience. 

Can this be the 'kindly light' which, in Newman's great poem, leads 
us 'amid the encircling gloom' from this life to the next? That is some- 
thing we shall all discover for ourselves one day. In a way it is a com- 
forting fact that death, the greatest of all mysteries, is also one which 
will be clarified for each and every one of us. Or is it a comforting fact? 
And is the light necessarily kindly? For one thing which we tend to 
forget in our present times, but which our forebears did not forget, is 
that death itself is not the experience we have to fear most. It is the 
judgment that follows death. That, too, is a matter of blinding light, 
and I will now try to examine it. 


Dies Irae: the Day of Wrath 

It is clear, if one accepts the existence of God and the idea of the next 
life at all, that we are living not in a static or cyclical or repetitive process, 
but in a dynamic and historical one, proceeding inexorably from the 
beginning to the end of time. In this historical process, the Day of 
Judgment is the greatest of all events, the culminating event, indeed, 
in the whole of history. It is a day of transcendental importance for each 
and every one of us, for it settles what is to be our fate through all 
eternity. Odd, then, that we hear so little about this dread day now, we 
who are so loquacious about our 'rights' in this world, whose expecta- 
tions are so minutely examined in the media, so endlessly debated in 
congresses and parliaments. Even more than death, the judgment ahead 
is pushed to one side, treated as though it can conveniently be forgotten. 
Let sleeping judgments lie, is our motto today. Even in religious circles, 
it is not much talked about now. It is a long time since I heard a sermon 
on the Last Judgment. 

It was not always thus. On the north side of Venice, rather by itself 
and not much visited, is one of the city's greatest treasures, Sta Maria 
dell'Orto. It has an ancient image of the Virgin, originally in a neigh- 
bouring garden, which is said to have worked miracles, and which is 
now in the church. Hence its name, although the original dedication 
was to St Christopher, whose statue is over the central portico of the 
West Front. The church was first built in the twelfth century and was 
much frequented by sailors who lived nearby on the Fondimenta dei 
Mori, and who needed St Christopher to come to their aid at sea. But it 
was extensively rebuilt in the fifteenth century in the characteristic 
Venetian Gothic style, the traceries of the windows being rich and 
quaint, and the white marble decorations and statuary admirable. 

244 / The Quest for God 

pretty and elegant. It is one of my favourite Venetian churches and 
some ten years ago I did a careful drawing of its West Front, which 
turned out to be a success, and which hangs near me as I write this 
book. The church was also the favourite, as I discovered, of Tintoretto, 
who lived nearby for the last twenty years of his life and is buried in 
it. Inside are four major works by the master. The Worship of the Golden 
Calf, The Presentation of the Virgin, St Agnes Raising Licinius to Life and 
The Last Judgment. 

All these works were beautifully restored, in the years 1968-72, by 
funds supplied from the United Kingdom Italian Art and Archives 
Restoration Fund. But it is The Last Judgment which stands out, as John 
Ruskin discovered when he first visited the church. He recorded his 
impressions of the painting in the second volume of Modern Painters, 
and even by Ruskin's standards, his presentation is memorable: 

By Tintoretto only has this unimaginable event [the Last Judgment] 
been grappled with in all its Verity; not typically nor symbolically, 
but as they may see it who shall not sleep, but be changed. Only one 
traditional circumstance he has received, with Dante and Michelan- 
gelo, the Boat of the Condemned; but the impetuosity of his mind 
burst out even in the adoption of this image; he has not stopped at 
the scowling ferryman of the one, nor at the sweeping blow and de- 
mon dragging of the other, but, seized Hylas-like by the limbs, and 
tearing up the earth in his agony, the victim is dashed into his de- 
struction; nor is the sluggish Lethe, nor the fiery lake, that bears the 
cursed vessel, but the oceans of the earth and the waters of the firm- 
ament gathered into one white, ghastly cataract; the river of the Wrath 
of God, roaring down into the gulf where the world has been melted 
with its fervent heat, choked with the ruins of nations, and the limbs 
of its corpses tossed out of its whirling, like waterwheels. Bat-like, 
out of the holes and caverns and shadows of the earth, the bones 
gather, and the clay heaps heave, rattling and adhering into half- 
kneaded anatomies, that crawl, and startle, and struggle up among 
the putrid weeds, with the clay clinging to their clotted hair, and 
their heavy eyes sealed by the earth darkness yet, like his of old who 
went his way unseeing to the Siloan Pool; shaking off one by one the 
dreams of the prison-house, hardly hearing the clangour of the 
trumpets of the armies of God, blinded yet more, as they awake, by 
the white light of the new Heaven, until the 

Dies Irae: the Day of Wrath / 145 

great vortex of the four winds bears up their bodies to the judgement- 
seat; the Firmament is all full of them, a very dust of human souls, 
that drifts, and floats, and falls into the interminable, inevitable light; 
the bright clouds are darkened with them as with thick snow, currents 
of atom life in the arteries of heaven, now soaring up slowly, and 
higher and higher still, till the eye and the thought can follow no 
farther, borne up, wingless, by their inward faith and by the angel 
power invisible, now hurled in countless drifts of horror before the 
breath of their condemnation. 

A careful scrutiny of this amazing work of art shows that the fine pas- 
sage by Ruskin is in no way hyperbolic or exaggerated, but merely puts 
into striking words what our eyes can see and what Tintoretto imagined 
into painted forms. The Last Judgment is indeed there, in all its horror 
and majesty. 

The notion of the entire human race, past, present and to come, being 
summoned collectively into a gigantic scene of justice is certainly 
alarming as well as spectacular. It was always present, or perhaps I 
should say intermittently but frequently present, in the Christian mind, 
from the days of the early church, through the Dark and Middle Ages, 
into Early Modern times. Depictions of the Last Judgment were a chal- 
lenge to painters and sculptors throughout, and eagerly accepted by 
them, relished indeed, as Tintoretto clearly relished his opportunity in 
Sta Maria dell'Orto. In many a timpanum at the entrance to a Christian 
church, we see Christ carved in stone, with the saved on his right and 
the damned on his left, and medieval man and woman were made well 
aware of what was coming to them-for good or ill-every time they 
entered the sacred edifice. Painters worked on an even greater scale, 
and far more explicitly. It maybe, as Ruskin contended, that Tintoretto 
alone got the hair-raising essence of the event, but all had a try and 
some, at least, made the flesh creep and the spine tingle and the spirit 
quail. Amazing to think that we can now look at their efforts, in churches 
and museums, with such composure, with the interest merely of art 
connoisseurs and tourists! 

Nor were Christians warned of the wrath to come solely in stone and 
paint. It so happens that the greatest of all medieval Latin poems, the 
Dies Irae (so-called from its opening words), deals with this topic, with 
a directness and simplicity but also with a power 

146 / The Quest for God 

and authority which is overwhelming. There is no other medieval 
liturgical poem which comes anywhere near it. Its vigorous concision 
is remarkable. It reveals Latin, even the debased Latin of the monks, at 
its best, so that none of the translations, even those attempted by 
scholars and versifiers of real gifts, begins to work as well, or at all. 
Who wrote it? We do not know. The author was almost certainly a 
Franciscan of the mid- thirteenth century. When I was a boy he was said 
to be St Thomas of Celano, the earliest of St Francis's biographers, who 
also composed a description of St Francis's miracles-all in rhythmical 
prose. But this attribution has now been undermined, without the real 
author being found, in the annoying way scholars have. The poem is 
written in the first person, so it was probably not intended for liturgical 
use. But the big men of the church relished it, as well they might, and 
soon turned it into an important addition to the liturgy of the Mass. It 
was made a Sequence: that is, the passage sung or chanted or read when 
the priest is accompanied by thurifers and altar staff from the high altar 
to the pulpit, bearing the gospel of the day, so he can read it to the 
congregation. I believe that the Dies Irae was for a time said at all masses 
given in commemoration of the soul of a particular person, and for 
centuries it remained obligatory in all requiem masses. It was also 
mandatory on All Souls' Day, 2 November, which happens to be my 
birthday, so I became very attached to this poem and used to know it 
by heart. 

The merit of the poem, it seems to me, lies not just in its wonderful 
directness and concision but in its balance. It does not disguise the 
horror and fear of the day. As it says, in the first verse, it is a Day of 
Wrath when the entire human race, all who have ever lived, are intended 
to tremble with fear, however virtuous they may have been and however 
sure they may think they are that they are not due to be cast aside for 
burning. A great judgment, a lit de justice, is meant to inspire awe in all 
those summoned to attend, whether they are put on trial or not. Thus 
did medieval villagers or townspeople cluster round the largest hall in 
the place, or take their apprehensive seats inside it, when a grand red- 
robed judge from Westminster Hall came on circuit to oyer et ter- 
miner - hear and dispose of-all outstanding litigation in the district. And 
thus, when I was a boy, did the entire school file into assembly, or 
whatever it was called, when the headmaster 

Dies Irae: the Day of Wrath / 147 

announced that, because of the enormities committed by certain de- 
praved boys-whose guilt had been uncovered-he proposed to punish 
them publicly in front of all. We all felt foreboding and dread even 
though we knew that we, personally, were not going to get a thrashing. 
But on the Day of Judgment the fear and apprehension is not distilled 
in us vicariously: it is direct and personal, for all of us are to be tried, 
convicted or declared innocent. And all the evidence is public. The Dies 
Irae conveys this emotion brilliantly. But it is not intended just to 
frighten us. In its last verses the mood changes and a note of compassion 
and mercy intervenes, as the fearful soul begs for forgiveness and prays 
for eternal life. This note of hope and intercession, after the tremendous 
storm of wrath, is introduced with great skill and is wonderfully 
soothing, so that the reader emerges, as it were, purged and refreshed. 
The plain chant setting of this great poem-let alone the renderings by 
Mozart, Verdi and others-is medieval chanting at its best, so that singing 
the Dies Irae is one of the most satisfying experiences for ordinary 
churchgoers in the entire liturgy. 

In recent years, I have begun to think about the Day of Judgment a 
lot, and often, and have reached certain tentative conclusions. Like 
Tintoretto, I do see it, or some of it, in visual terms, but I add a sound- 
track too, as no doubt Tintoretto would also, if it had been possible. 
The tremendous scenes enacted on his canvas must have generated a 
colossal amount of noise-earthquakes, 'cataracts and hurricanos', 
thunderbolts splitting rocks and entire nations disintegrating and dis- 
appearing into abysses, as well as the cries of the damned. In my vision, 
however, I concentrate on two things, one visual, one aural. The visual 
setting encompasses an almost infinite amount of space. I got the idea 
for this once while flying, when the giant airliner in which I was sitting, 
for some reason, went over 40,000 feet, a fact which was reported to us 
by the pilot. From the window it was possible to grasp the curvature 
of the earth, but what struck me most was the intense brilliance of the 
stratosphere, which seemed to be filled with blue-white light, like the 
rays of a gigantic diamond, and stretched for ever. At once I imagined 
this as the setting for Judgment Day, the last dawn of history, when a 
limitless stage is erected in the empyrean for the final confrontation 
between God and all mortals. The stage 

148 / The Quest for God 

is pure and bright and empty, and it is at this point that sound enters. 
I imagine a trumpet-blast so piercing as to make the senses recoil in 
agony and fear, and which is so powerful that it reverberates and echoes 
across the entire oval of space which I glimpsed from the aircraft win- 
dow. There is no hiding from the glittering space and no shielding one's 
ears from the trump of summons. So, slowly, the dead awake and the 
souls gather, but it is at this point that my vision, my imaginative pro- 
jection of the Day of Wrath, falters. 

What happens next, then, I can put together only from the relevant 
texts and others' imaginations, and I feel it is much more pedestrian. It 
is complicated by confusion, which no amount of theological head- 
scratching and holding-forth has ever quite dispersed, between the 
Particular Judgment and the General Judgment. Judgment Day is not 
a topic or issue in Judaism, so Jewish texts and commentary are unhelp- 
ful here. The idea of the judgment was first made specific by Jesus Christ 
himself, and it is very much a Christian doctrine. Indeed its complica- 
tions are largely a Roman Catholic doctrine. So let us proceed. In St 
John's Gospel, Jesus is reported to have said: 'Marvel not at this: for the 
hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear [my] 
voice. And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resur- 
rection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of 
damnation.' The scene is enlarged upon in St Matthew's Gospel, where 
Jesus says: 

When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels 
with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. And before 
him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one 
from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: he 
shall set the sheep on the right hand, but the goats on the left. Then 
shall the King say unto them on his right hand. Come ye blessed of 
my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation 
of the world!... Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand. 
Depart from me ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the 
devil and his angels. 

The chapter concludes: 'And these shall go away unto everlasting 
punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.' 

Now it is clear that what Jesus Christ is talking about in both these 
passages is the General Judgment or the Last Judgment, 

Dies Irae: the Day of Wrath / 149 

which takes place at the end of the world and is immediately preceded 
by his Second Coming. But there is also the problem of what happens 
immediately to each one of us when we die. This too was alluded to by 
Jesus in St Luke's Gospel, when he has the Good Thief rebuke the 
malefactor who 'railed' against the Saviour, saying to him: 'Dost not 
thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we in- 
deed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man 
hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord remember me 
when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him. Verily 
I say unto thee. Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.' The man was 
about to die and it was plain he had repented of his sins and, even in 
his agony, had summoned up the strength to see that Jesus was innocent 
and to proclaim it, and had been granted the gift of faith accordingly, 
so that he died in a state of grace. Hence in his case the Particular 
Judgment passed on him would immediately or 'today' elevate him to 
eternal life. 

However, it might be that Jesus was granting a special grace to the 
man who hung crucified alongside him and said comforting words in 
Jesus's death-agony. It was not thought by many early theologians that 
this applied to the entire human race, though there is a hint that it does 
in the parable of Lazarus, the poor man, where both rich and poor men 
are immediately judged on dying. Other interpretations of the Last 
Judgment scenario have it that the dead lie in their graves until the Last 
Trump, when they are summoned to judgment, and come surging up 
from their sepulchres from all over the world and from throughout 
history, an amazing sight, which was what Tintoretto so vividly por- 
trayed in the great painting Ruskin admired. A further possibility, 
which fits in neatly to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, is that between 
individual death and Last Judgement, the souls of the sinners not suffi- 
ciently wicked enough to go to Hell are taken to Purgatory, where they 
atone for their faults, until such time as they are expiated, when they 
move up to Heaven. Obviously some are in Purgatory much longer 
than others and may still be there when the Last Trump sounds. Equally, 
some have their purgatorial sentence cut as a result of prayers for the 
dead offered up on their behalf from earth, or indulgences which remit 
purgatorial punishment and which are won on their behalf by earthlings. 
But we 

150 / The Quest for God 

are here in one of those intricate doctrinal complexities beloved of tra- 
ditional Catholics like myself, but which cause offence and scandal to 
others, so I will leave the point. It is enough to say there is a possible 
gap between the Particular Judgment and the General Judgment which 
is filled in various ways. 

This is not just a minor point of dogmatic theology either. The gap 
concerns everyone and is of interest to them. We want to know 
whether we shall know our fate immediately we die, or whether we 
will have to wait, and what will happen to us in the meantime. One 
answer, of course, and in a way it is the most logical answer, is that 
after death time does not exist-everything is in the immediate present, 
and 'time must have a stop', as Shakespeare puts it, for all. In that case 
the Particular Judgment and the General Judgment are simultaneous. 
But this is not, on the whole, the solution the theologians prefer. Some 
of the earlier ones, like St Justin, Tertullian and St Ambrose-the last 
normally a treasure-trove of good sense and orthodoxy-held that the 
gap was filled by the soul remaining asleep or enjoying partial suffering 
or happiness. The second Council of Lyons in 1274 supported the idea 
of a purification period. Then in 1336 in a bull called Benedictus Deus, 
Benedict XII laid down that the Particular Judgment took place imme- 
diately at death, admitting the soul either to Hell or Heaven or Purgat- 
ory. This was eventually confirmed by the Council of Florence in 1439 
and, more authoritatively, by the Council of Trent in 1563, and so far 
as I can see has remained the agreed Catholic doctrine ever since. The 
new Catholic Catechism states: 'Each man [it says nothing about women] 
receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment 
of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either 
entrance into the blessedness of heaven-through a purification or imme- 
diately-or immediate and everlasting damnation.' 

According to Catholic teaching, then. Judgment Day is quite a com- 
plicated affair. Correction: it is an infinitely complicated affair, involving 
literally billions of people. In addition to the masses of souls involved, 
there is the added complication that they are divided into two main 
groups, each subdivided into three. The two main groups are those 
who have already been dealt with at their Particular Judgments, spread 
over thousands of years-or more: we do not know how long this world 
will last-and those 

Dies Irae: the Day of Wrath / 151 

still on earth when it comes to an end, whose Particular Judgment is 
telescoped into the General Judgment. Each group is further divided 
into those for Heaven, those for Hell and those for Purgatory. What is 
not immediately obvious, for instance, is whether those who have got 
to Heaven already will be summoned back to the judgment place to 
have their reward confirmed or will watch events from a sort of celestial 
balcony. And what of those already in Hell? Will they be driven up, 
screaming and swearing and smouldering, to be sentenced a second 
time, and then back into Hell again? Or will they watch the proceedings 
from afar, knowing the outcome anyway? One would like to think that 
those committed to Hell at the Particular Judgment and who may have 
been there thousands of years, in our time anyway, will finally have 
their perpetual sentence remitted at the Last Trump. But that is not 
what the church teaches. In any case, had they been destined for such 
a final fate, they would have been sent to Purgatory. 

I have been writing about these events as though they actually take 
place in space, in a kind of vast amphitheatre, a sort of colossal judg- 
mental saucer, thousands of miles across perhaps, yet such as everything 
can be seen in it. But the end of the world and the Second Coming mark 
the end of space as well as time, and it may be that all these visualisa- 
tions are vain. On the other hand, a Last Judgment without some col- 
lective presence and some form of solemn tribunal, indeed some final 
separation of just and unjust which has to be seen as well as felt by each 
individual, would be almost a contradiction in terms and a non-event. 
It would lose much of its awe and terror if it could not in some way be 
perceived by the senses, albeit disembodied ones. 

Moreover, the Last Judgment, as I understand it, is by its nature a 
public event, not a happening in the mind, even a happening in billions 
of minds. It is a final summation of history, a collective report on the 
human race and a general verdict on the results of God's decision to 
create the universe. Lor justice to be done, it must be seen to be done. 
The true nature of sin, its bottomless horror and depravity, has to be 
demonstrated for all to witness and appreciate, so that there remains 
not the smallest scintilla of doubt in any soul that sin demands retribu- 
tion. Then there has to be a public and collective demonstration that 
God's sentencing is, indeed, just and that means the particular sins (and 
virtues) of 

152 / The Quest for God 

each soul have to be displayed and examined, so that the verdict is seen 
to be inevitable in each case, and the equity of the sentence or reward 
endorsed by all. You may say: how can these things be? What-must we 
sit and watch a re-enactment of the Particular Judgment on each and 
every soul which has ever been attached to a body? If so, eternity has 
hidden terrors indeed! My answer is yes, and for two reasons. First, the 
entire life, including the concealed and inner life, of each man and wo- 
man must be made public, for there can be no secrets in the next life. 
We may forgive all or condemn all, but in any event we must know all. 
It may be shameful, on that day, to have all our hidden, mean and dis- 
gusting thoughts revealed to the entire human race, but that is part of 
their purgation and it may be that, once they are so revealed, they dis- 
appear as though they had never been, so that we enter Heaven-if we 
are fortunate- without a past. Second, it is essential that the collectivity 
of humankind must be assured of God's justice in each particular case, 
must bear witness to the evidence, the verdict and the consequences. 
All must be revealed-all. 

Now I do not pretend to know how these things will actually happen. 
But I am satisfied they will happen. Without space or time or embodi- 
ment, all things are possible. We have to escape from the limitations of 
our human, worldly imaginations and put ourselves into an eternal 
framework in which numbers, distances, repetition, simultaneity and 
the perception of the senses mean absolutely nothing, at any rate in our 
terms. We have simply to assume that the intimate record of every hu- 
man soul is made available to all on this Judgment Day and is absorbed 
by all, and that the judgments on all are endorsed by all. 

One final point must be added, and it is a comforting one. In God's 
divine plan, it is not proposed that the Father himself, in his person as 
the Almighty Creator, infinite in all his perfections, shall himself carry 
out the acts of judgment. The notion of an all-perfect being, albeit he is 
an all-perceiving and all-understanding being, judging those who, by 
their nature-for which he is responsible-are imperfect and fallible and 
frail, somehow seems to run contrary to natural justice. So God the 
Father places his son, the Son of Man, in the judgment seat, and it is 
one who has dwelt on earth, who has undergone the limitations and 
weakness of a human persona, who has experienced the world, and who 

Dies Irae: the Day of Wrath / 153 

suffered death himself, who accesses the evidence and delivers the 
verdicts and decides the rewards and punishments. On the Day of 
Judgment, it is Jesus Christ who is in charge. 

This is made explicit and unambiguous in the New Testament. In 
Chapter 5 of St John's Gospel, when Jesus reveals the nature of his 
mission to the Apostles, and speaks of himself in the third person, he 
insists on his judicial role in words which cannot be open to any mis- 
construction. He says: 'For the Father judgeth no man, but hath commit- 
ted all judgment unto the Son.' This is of set purpose, so that the judge 
be separated from the law-making Father, and reach his decision on 
the evidence. The text continues with Christ's frank admission: 'I can 
of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; 
because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath 
sent me.' 

That is clear enough. There is an element of humanity in this judgment 
of so many humans, for the judge is, or was, man as well as God. But 
in fact there may be more than this element of humanity. In another 
section of St John's Gospel, Jesus reminds his hearers that 'God sent 
not his son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world 
through him might be saved.' The Last Judgment is not so much deliv- 
ering verdicts as confirming verdicts already reached in the heart of 
each individual. Jesus continues: 'And this [my italics] is the condemna- 
tion, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather 
than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil 
hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be 
reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds 
may be made manifest, that they were wrought in God.' 

I say that this is a comforting doctrine, in one sense, because it sug- 
gests that, on Judgment Day, the sinners identify themselves, as indeed 
they have already done in this life by rejecting the light. By pursuing 
certain courses, while they have the choice, and exercising their free 
will to choose between good and evil, they are pre-empting both the 
Particular and the General Judgment. They are in fact condemning 
themselves. What makes the Last Judgment perfect judgment is the fact 
that, on top of everything else, it is self-judgment. And, since the pun- 
ishment reflects the choice made, that too is self-imposed. But this does 
not make it any less dreadful. 


Does Hell exist, and what is going there 


There has never been a time when I have not believed in the existence 
of Hell, though the frequency and extent to which I think about it has 
varied greatly. There are times when months pass without the thought 
of Hell so much as crossing my mind. There are other times when it 
looms large and baneful in my consciousness. These periods do not 
occur often, or last long, and they are usually ones of unhappiness and 
depression. I think the unconscious train of thought runs thus: 'If I am 
miserable now, how much worse off will I be if, by some catastrophe, 
I find myself in Hell, where horror is habitual, deliberate, systematic 
and eternal?' 

In my childhood we talked often about Purgatory, which is an omni- 
present, almost cheerful part of the furniture of belief in an old-fashioned 
Catholic household. We assumed none of us was perfect; that all, when 
we died, would be unfit to enter Heaven directly; but that all would 
get there eventually, and in the meantime would have to spend some 
time in Purgatory, atoning for our sins, stripping and purging ourselves 
of the remaining integuments of evil, and thus becoming purified and 
fit to enter the presence of God. So Purgatory was a virtually certain 
fact we had to face. We did not know how long we would be there. 
Among our acquaintance we counted no saints, let alone martyrs, who 
would see God the instant of death, and be invited to sit by his side. 
But we knew good, old people, usually women, who had led long-suf- 
fering lives which they had borne with stoicism and cheerfulness. My 
mother would say of such a one, when she died: 'Well, she is not long 
for purgatory, that is sure.' But it was never quite discussed how long 
the rest of us would have to be there. 

What we did know, and acted upon, was the system of indul- 

Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? / 155 

gences, some partial, some plenary, which could be secured, for 
ourselves and those already dead, to mitigate and shorten purgatorial 
pain, by prayers and good works in this world. I will not go into the 
mechanics of indulgences because I know nothing is more calculated 
to irritate and even disgust those not brought up as Catholics. Moreover, 
I do not think they are important. The notion of the indulgence is very 
old. But the cult itself is a late-medieval creation, whose abuses sprang 
from the need of the church to raise huge sums of money to build the 
great cathedrals. York Minster, for instance, which is the largest medi- 
eval cathedral in England and contains one of the most remarkable 
collections of medieval stained glass in the world, could not have been 
built without the sale of indulgences. The same is true of many other 
European cathedrals built or rebuilt in the fourteenth, fifteenth and 
early sixteenth centuries. We revere and use these vast structures now 
for what they are: objects of beauty and holy places which testify to the 
faith of men and women and the goodness and glory of God. And if it 
was part of God's plan that they should have been constructed, in part, 
with the coinage of ecclesiastical corruption, who are we to object? 

However that may be, I do not believe the mechanics of indulgences 
now matter. What I was taught to believe, and do believe, is a much 
simpler doctrine: that we can all earn remission of our time in Purgatory 
by prayer and good works; and, more important, that our prayers and 
acts of goodness can help those already in Purgatory-relations, friends, 
unknown but deserving souls-by the workings of some celestial system 
of exchange. When I was a small boy, and in pain because of a fall or 
cut or toothache, my mother would say to me: 'Offer it up to the souls 
in Purgatory.' And what was meant has always seemed to me perfectly 
credible: that our willing acceptance of the pains which God, in his in- 
finite wisdom, inflicts on us in this world-our submission to them 
without complaint or anger-carries merit in the next; and that we can 
use this merit either to remit our own purgatorial pain, or to buy remis- 
sion for others. 

Praying, helping the souls in Purgatory, has always carried with me 
a powerful visual image. I recall seeing an old print of a prison whose 
upper windows, though barred, opened to the world. The poor prison- 
ers, who were ill-fed, perhaps starving, could lower a 

156 / The Quest for God 

basket through the bars, and good folk passing in the street could put 
into the basket coins or bread or clothing, which would then be precari- 
ously raised and snatched through the bars. This procedure was com- 
mon in medieval prisons, where there were no funds to feed the inmates, 
and I have always seen praying for those in Purgatory as an analogy. 
I do so pray, every day of my life; and when I leave this world, I hope 
others will pray for me. 

We were, then, all pretty sure that we would spend time in Purgatory- 
probably a long time, though we had no idea how long. We did not 
believe we would go to Hell, for the simple reason that we did not feel 
we were wicked enough, or in a sense important enough. Hell was for 
those who were not just evil but evil on a large and imposing scale- 
Hitlers, Stalins, those featured in the newspapers as murderers, people 
who were famously or notoriously evil. It did not seem to me that little 
people, ordinary men, women and children, who failed to attract much 
notice and whose misdoings, though undoubtedly sinful, were of no 
public consequence, would find themselves in Hell. Or, if they did, I 
could not imagine seeing them there. 

Now this is not good doctrine, as I now understand it. But the doctrine 
of Hell has always been uncertain, obscure and difficult to grasp, at 
least in some respects. To begin with, it is a doctrine with a definite 
history. In the New Testament it is already in full and flaming existence: 
an eternal place of darkness and fire, a furnace, a lake of fire, a bottom- 
less pit, a place of outer darkness inhabited by the devil and his demons, 
where there is endless weeping and torment (Matthew 13:42, 50; 25:41, 
45; Mark 3:29; St Paul: Romans 2:5, 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Revelations 9:1, 
11; 14:10-11, 21:8 and so on). In the Old Testament, however, particularly 
in its earlier books. Hell as we understand it-a place where the wicked 
are punished eternally-did not seem to exist. The Hebrew word Sheol 
usually meant the grave, the death-pit, the place where the departed 
went. All went there, irrespective of merit, to the world below, where 
reigned gloom, darkness, decay, weariness and silence, a place remote 
from God. To the primitive Hebrews, the mark of happiness was life 
itself, the object was to enjoy it, to stay alive, and death was a defeat. 

The Egyptians seem to have been the first people to develop a specific 
doctrine of survival after death, followed in time with the 

Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? / 157 

concept of an individual judgment, a literal 'weighing of souls' on a 
huge scale or balance, with the good enjoying eternal life and those 
who failed perishing in some definitive manner. It was from this idea 
that the Hebrews drew their notion of separate divisions in Sheol for 
the good and the evil. The first Hell in people's minds may have been 
an actual place. On the south side of Jerusalem there was a fearful valley, 
abominated by the Jews as a one-time centre of idolatrous worship of 
the god Moloch, whose wrath was appeased by the burnt offering of 
children (2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6). The fires of Moloch were replaced, in 
the time of Josiah, by perpetually smouldering garbage dumps, which 
consumed the filth of Jerusalem and the bones of dead men (1 Kings 
23:10-14). All but the most menial municipal workers avoided the place, 
but its fires could be seen by night from the city. To this horrible place, 
familiar to all Jerusalem, was added the equally real but more remote 
vision of underground fires, known to most Hebrews only by hearsay, 
but confirmed by many travellers' tales. These were endlessly burning 
seepages from the great underground reservoirs of crude oil, between 
the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in what we now call Iraq. 

In the post-canonical Hebrew literature, produced after the Old 
Testament itself, Jerusalem's abominated Valley of Himmon, as it was 
called, was married to the oil fires to fashion the theology of Hell, as a 
perpetual fiery underground, beneath the earth just as Heaven was 
above the skies, where the wicked were endlessly incinerated. This Hell 
was real as well as awful, and it appears fully developed, specific and 
urgent, in the teachings of Christ. Christ is quite clear that the wicked 
would be judged and find themselves in Hell, a place of horrific pun- 
ishment, for ever. The term Himmon becomes, in the Greek translitera- 
tion of the New Testament, Gehenna (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 
23:15, 33, etc.). 

Hell as a developed doctrine, a fiercely detailed belief, is therefore 
only as old as Christianity. It acquired many visual and doctrinal accre- 
tions in the Dark and Middle Ages and was probably at its most vivid 
on the eve of the Reformation. But the odd thing about Hell is that man, 
by which of course I mean essentially European man, is tremendously 
imaginative and industrious in depicting Hell and elaborating its hor- 
rors, and also remarkably insouciant in carrying on living, and sinning. 
Late-medieval men 

158 / The Quest for God 

and women were confronted everywhere with paintings and sculptures 
and writings presenting the tortures of Hell in the most hair-raising 
detail, and at one level everyone certainly believed in what they were 
taught and shown. But it did not seem to make much difference to what 
people actually did. Nor do we hear of people having nightmares about 
Hell or developing neuroses or pathological conditions because they 
feared it. In a way. Hell was tamed simply because its images became 
so much part of life, were so familiar to young and old, rich and poor. 
What would the preacher have done without Hell? More- what would 
the artist? Hell is the core of Dante's imaginative universe. L'lnferno is 
clearly what he most enjoyed writing, just as we most enjoy reading it; 
II Purgatorio is less interesting; II Paradiso, by comparison, tedious, un- 
memorable. It is the scenes of the inferno, and the conversation with 
those Dante and Virgil meet there, which cling to the memory. 

Again, it is impossible to examine the oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch 
without thinking: how this great artist loved Hell-and how impoverished 
his work would have been without it! Some forty-eight of his paintings 
have survived. Most of them, and all the best, deal with the question 
of Hell and its inhabitants. Bosch must have spent countless hours 
thinking about Hell and elaborating its visual images in his mind, before 
even putting his brush to the board. He loved Hell-it was his work, his 
life, his creative universe-and though he set about depicting it as a place 
of horror, which would produce in those who studied it revulsion and 
the desire to repent while there was still time, he also made it a place 
of beauty of colour and form, of scintillating detail and ingenuity. All 
nature is there, metamorphosed into evil, and the birds, though creatures 
of doom, sing in their trees, the fishes swim in the lake-pits, all the weird 
half-humans, animals and devils display extraordinary energy and 
delight in their death-life. His lakes of evil and exploding cities of doom 
and fire are so exciting, the colours so exquisite, the eye is so irresistibly 
drawn into the picture, to dwell there on its fascinating details, that I 
wonder how many errant souls were actually frightened by Bosch into 
a better life. 

Yet we have to accept that Hell was a deterrent. Every greedy medi- 
eval merchant, however hardened in avarice, every proud 

Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? / 159 

and cruel Renaissance prince, who stormed cities for his glory and put 
his enemies to the sword and torture, every lady of fashion who flaunted 
her body and lent her ear to tempting voices-all these ready and repet- 
itive sinners must have paused, from time to time, and considered that 
Hell was waiting for them too. Medieval paintings and sculptures of 
Hell were particularly careful to show the rich, the well-born and the 
beautiful being plunged into the pit, and prodded and taunted by 
demons. Thanks to Hell, and its ubiquitous presentation by artists, a 
mighty man would often think twice before doing something he knew 
to be wrong. Or, as he grew older, and the possibility of Hell grew 
nearer, he would set about making amends to those he had wronged. 
However rich or educated or sophisticated, medieval men and women 
could not get out of their minds that Hell might, very likely did, exist, 
exactly as the preachers said. 

Certainly when the doctrine of Hell went into its long historical de- 
cline, from the seventeenth century onwards, those who studied the 
facts of crime and evil felt its waning power was significant. In England, 
for instance, the century following the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, 
which sanctified property as the basis of political life and introduced a 
long period of internal peace, also witnessed an extraordinary expansion 
of the number of statutory crimes carrying the death penalty, from 50 
to almost 200. There was a similar development in America. This sprang 
from the well-founded belief among the ruling class that the idea of 
eternal punishment was no longer an effective deterrent. Hence, as 
Hell-fire died down, the gallows would have to rise from its ashes. 

Some sought to keep the fires stoked up, however, believing that it 
is better for men and women-and children-to be scared from wickedness 
by the fear of Hell, than that the state should be forced to bring into 
existence an immense apparatus of police and prisons and courts to 
achieve the same effect by secular means. I have a feeling that they are 
right, and that belief in punishment to come is more effective in keeping 
most people in awe and sobriety than the clumsy, undiscriminating 
and frequently unjust arm of the law. However that maybe, the cooling 
of eternal fires was (and is) a fact. It is charted in D. P. Walker's brilliant 
book The Decline of Hell (London 1964). By the closing decades of the 
eighteenth century, among educated people at least, the notion of 

160 / The Quest for God 

Hell-fire already evoked scepticism and even distaste; and forceful as- 
sertion of the pristine doctrine was received with uneasiness. James 
Boswell gives a vivid account of a discussion between Dr Samuel 
Johnson, then aged 75, and Dr Adams, head of Pembroke College, and 
others, which took place in Oxford in 1784: 

Dr Johnson: '. . .as I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions 
on which salvation is granted, I am afraid that I may be one of those 
who shall be damned' (looking dismally). Dr Adams: 'What do you 
mean by damned?' Johnson (passionately and loudly): 'Sent to Hell, 
Sir, and punished everlastingly.' Dr Adams: 'I don't believe that 
doctrine.' Johnson: 'Hold, Sir: do you believe that some will be pun- 
ished at all?' Dr Adams: 'Being excluded from Heaven will be a pun- 
ishment; yet there maybe no great positive suffering.' Johnson: 'Well, 
Sir; but if you admit any degree of punishment, there is an end of 
your argument for infinite goodness simply considered; for infinite 
goodness would inflict no punishment whatever. There is not infinite 
goodness physically considered; morally, there is.' Boswell: 'But may 
not a man attain to such a degree of hope as not to be uneasy from 
the fear of death?' Johnson: 'A man may have such a degree of hope 
as to keep him quiet. You see I am not quiet, from the vehemence 
with which I talk; but I do not despair.' Mrs Adams: 'You seem. Sir, 
to forget the merits of our Redeemer.' Johnson: 'Madame, I do not 
forget the merits of my Redeemer; but my Redeemer has said he will 
set some on his right hand, and some on his left.' He was in gloomy 
agitation, and said: 'I'll have no more on't.' 

This little snatch of discussion shows an age when many people were 
already pushing Hell to the backs of their minds, and discounting or 
minimising it when the topic was raised. 

Dr Johnson was unusually courageous in seeing the necessity for 
eternal punishment and being willing to confront it in his own life and 
mind. He was not the only one. Clever and learned men have continued 
to regard Hell as a fact and faced its implications. Samuel Taylor Col- 
eridge argued, for example, that Hell was a necessary consequence of 
free will. In his Biographia Liter aria he asserts: 'Man cannot be a moral 
human being without having had the choice of good and evil, and he 
cannot choose good without being able to choose evil.' If man deliber- 
ately chose evil, he was unfit for the presence of God. So the doctrine 
of Heaven necessarily implied the existence of an alternative. Coleridge, 

Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? / 161 

Johnson, was happy to consider as probable the Catholic doctrine of 
Purgatory-he argued that it had a more positive effect on morality than 
the stark Protestant alternative of Hell/ Heaven. He thought it possible 
that, in the event, no one would actually go to Hell and was willing to 
argue this from scripture. But that there could be and was such a state 
as Hell he was sure, because he felt he had had a horrific glimpse of it 
through his opium addiction. And Hell and the infinite goodness of 
God could co-exist, as he knew from his experiences: 

I feel, with an intensity unfathomable by words, my utter nothingness, 
impotence and worthlessness, in and for myself-I have learnt what a 
sin is against an infinite imperishable Being, such as is the Soul of 
Man-I have had more than a glimpse of what is meant by Death and 
utter Darkness, and the Worm that dieth not-and that all the Hell of 
the Reprobate is no more inconsistent with the Love of God, than 
the Blindness of one who has occasioned loathsome and guilty Dis- 
eases to eat out his eyes, is inconsistent with the Light of the Sun. 
(Letter to Joseph Cottle, 27 May 1814) 

Coleridge, being a poet possessed of the most wonderful imagination, 
as well as an addict who had undergone hellish experiences, perceived 
that the reality of Hell was far more likely to resemble, perhaps in yet 
more fearsome form, the agonies of the addict, compounded of guilt, 
remorse and sheer terror, as well as physical suffering, than the some- 
what mechanical penology of traditional Christian writers and 
preachers. He thought the Hell-fire approach unimaginative, in the 
deepest sense, and often ineffective. For many, its very crudeness 
hindered acceptance of the existence of Hell. For others, it suggested 
that Hell was too monstrous a place to apply to them. 

But of course most ministers of religion are not poets, or even skilled 
versifiers. They are fairly ordinary, not particularly well-educated, 
earnest and anxious men, labouring in a sinful world to bring home to 
vast, ignorant congregations the reality of sin, the inevitability of death, 
and the risk of eternal punishment. So they reach for their fiery adject- 
ives and metaphors and word-pictures. In the mid-eighteenth century, 
struggling against the rising waters of indifference, cynicism and the 
secular Enlightenment, St Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) set about 
bringing Hell 

162 / The Quest for God 

firmly before people's minds again. He was a well-born lawyer who 
turned to religious life comparatively late, aged thirty, and went on to 
found the Redemptorist Congregation, which specialised in devotional 
and moral theology and preaching to the masses. His own books dealt 
with eternal punishment in detail. Thus, in The Eternal Truth: Preparation 
for Death, he stressed the importance of fire in Hell: 

the unhappy wretch will be surrounded by fire like wood in a furnace. 
He will find an abyss of fire below, an abyss above, and an abyss on 
every side. If he touches, if he sees, if he breathes, he touches, he sees, 
he breathes only fire. He will be in fire like a fish in water. This fire 
will not only surround the damned, but it will enter into his bowels 
to torment him. His body will become all fire; so that the bowels 
within him will burn, his heart will burn in his bosom, his brains in 
his head, his blood in his veins, even the marrow in his bones: each 
reprobate will in himself become a furnace of fire. 

Liguori's Redemptorists created a tradition of putting the horrors of 
Hell before the public. They became particularly expert at preaching 
Hell-fire to children. In Victorian times, a Redemptorist father called 
the Revd Joseph Furniss started a mission for children in 1847, preaching 
the need for repentance before Hell's gates closed and reinforcing his 
sermons with tracts. He was particularly anxious to remind children 
that they might die at any time, as indeed was only too true in those 
days, and that an unconfessed mortal sin would be fatal to their eternal 
chances. He was a showman. On the evening before he preached his 
big Hell sermon, he would encourage a large attendance by saying: 

My dear children, we are going to make a long journey tomorrow. 
We are all going out of the church. We are going to see something 
very wonderful. Be in good time, or you will be too late, and you 
won't be able to go-you will be left behind. 

He took them, in fact, on a journey down to Hell, in the steps, as it were, 
of Dante. In his sermon, and in his accompanying tract. Sight of Hell, he 
placed the scene of torment in the middle of the earth. The damned are 
themselves fiery objects: 

The fire burns through every bone and every muscle. Every nerve is 

Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? / 163 

trembling and quivering with the sharp fire. The fire rages inside the 
skull, it shoots through the eyes, it drops through the ears, it roars 
in the throat as it roars up a chimney. 

Furniss's Hell was also provided with six dungeons, each with different 
forms of fiery torture-a burning press, a deep pit, a red-hot floor, a 
boiling kettle, a red-hot coffin and a red-hot oven. In the last he drew 
the picture of a tormented child: 

The little child is in the red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come 
out; see how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its 
head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet upon the 
floor. . .God was very good to this little child. Very likely God saw it 
would get worse and worse and never repent and so it would have 
been punished more severely in Hell. So God in His mercy called it 
out of the world in early childhood. 

The Redemptorists were still going strong in my youth, and still 
specialising in bring Hell-fire to boys. That is why I dwell on their role- 
they are old friends of mine. When I was at Stonyhurst, between the 
ages of twelve and seventeen, we had an extra weekly sermon on the 
evenings of the Wednesdays in Lent, filing into what was called the 
Boys' Chapel after supper. The sermons on the last four Wednesdays 
in Lent (school did not break up until Holy Saturday, the day before 
Easter Sunday) were eschatological, dealing in turn with Death, Judg- 
ment, Hell and Heaven. The Jesuits were a little ambivalent about 
eschatology, and especially about stressing the pains of Hell. They 
thought it necessary to warn, perhaps even to alarm, boys already 
capable of fearful sins, about the risks of impenitence. But they were 
not prepared to do such vulgar work themselves. So they called in the 
Redemptorists. Each year, an expert Redemptorist Hell-fire sermoniser 
was invited to the school to give the four eschatological sermons. This 
was a shrewd move. If a preacher went too far, and a boy complained 
to his parents that he had been frightened, and the parents complained 
to the school, the Jesuits could blame the Redemptorists. In fact no boy 
so far as I know ever complained. Considering they were an extra ser- 
vice, the sermons were remarkably popular. We boys thought of them 
as out-of-the-ordinary, unsubtle perhaps but vivid, even entertaining 
in the same way as a horror-movie. 

164 / The Quest for God 

Of course, we were frightened, or perhaps impressed is a better word, 
especially by the third sermon on Hell. That evening, special confession- 
als were kept open after the service, so no boy need go to bed with an 
unconfessed mortal sin and fear dying during the night. My last Lent 
at school I congratulated the Redemptorist after his Hell sermon and 
asked him what it felt like to deliver it. He was a grizzled veteran and 
visibly pleased by my praise. 

Oh, it's my job, you know. I do my best. I have heard better Hell 
sermons-old Father Fitzgerald you know, God rest his soul, he was 
a real scorcher. He made the hairs stand on your head. But I do my 
best. I don't consider I've succeeded unless there are at least three 
rows of boys waiting to make their confessions afterwards. Sometimes 
I get four. Two is disappointing. 

These sermons were similar to those so vividly described by James 
Joyce in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I reacted to them in the 
same way as Joyce; initially impressed, but the images soon faded. It 
is exactly as Coleridge said: the stress on Hell-fire somehow persuades 
the hearer that Hell does not apply to him. The more vividly the 
mechanical tortures are described, the more remote and irrelevant Hell 
seems. These terrible images, implanted on the tender mind of a teen- 
ager, ought by all the laws of Freud to have left permanent scars. In my 
case, at least, they left nothing-no more than my reading of Mary Shel- 
ley's Frankenstein or Bram Stoker's Dracula. I was much more frightened 
by M. R. James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, which I recall reading 
one Lent at school. The subtleties of James's fear-inducing tricks, and 
the skilful way in which he used his profound academic knowledge of 
ancient documents and buildings to convey authenticity, made me 
shiver at the time, and I still hesitate before reading one of his stories 
even today. But the Hell of the Redemptorists produced no lasting im- 
pression on me. 

Far more telling is the approach of John Henry Newman, in my 
judgment. Newman was a poet, a superb journalist, a showman, as well 
as a theologian of intense and sinuous subtlety. He writes like an angel; 
he ravishes you with his power over the language. I know of nothing 
which comes closer, in imagination, to the moment of death, and to the 
conflicting feelings of pain and hope-and apprehension-of a departing 
soul, than Newman's 

Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? / 165 

great poem. The Dream of Gerontius. The effect is deepened and 
heightened by the superb musical setting provided by Sir Edward Elgar, 
another Catholic, though a much more disturbed one than Newman. I 
imagine, or at least I hope, that my own death will have something in 
common with Gerontius's, and I am preparing for it with Newman's 
words, and Elgar's music, as guides. 

Not that Newman was eager to inspire more hope and comfort than 
he thought wise. He was always anxious to stress, in his sermons and 
writings, how easy it is for educated men (not women: he knew little 
of them and seems rarely to have them in mind when dealing with 
serious topics) to be over-confident about eternity. He disapproved of 
crude Hell-fire sermons if only because they encouraged the sophistic- 
ated to dismiss the entire business of Hell as childish nonsense. Thus, 
Newman argued, they led men to imperil their souls because Hell was, 
and is, far from nonsense but a terrible reality and, properly presented 
and understood, an intensely plausible reality too. Newman was partic- 
ularly concerned by the anguish of a soul who, reasonably well meaning 
in life, though careless and sinful-not a monster of sin but a fallible 
human being-dies unshriven and discovers too late that the rules which 
precipitate men into Hell are horribly clear and inflexible. The soul, 
appalled and mortified by his sudden realisation he is damned, protests. 
Newman described this in a powerful sermon, printed in his Discourses 
to Mixed Congregations: 

Oh, what a moment for the poor soul, when it comes to itself, and 
finds itself suddenly before the judgment seat of Christ! Oh what a 
moment, when breathless with the journey and dizzy with the 
brightness, and overwhelmed with the strangeness of what is hap- 
pening to him, and unable to realise where he is, the sinner hears the 
voice of the accusing spirit, bringing up all the sins of his past life, 
which he has forgotten or which he has explained away, which he 
would not allow to be sins, though he suspected that they were . . . And, 
oh! still more terrible, still more distressing, when the Judge speaks 
and consigns it to the jailors, till it shall pay the endless debt which 
lies against it! And the poor soul struggles and wrestles in the grasp 
of the mighty demon which has hold of it, and whose every touch 
is torment. 'Oh, atrocious!' it shrieks in agony, and in anger too, as 
if the very keenness of its affliction were proof of its injustice. 'A 
second! and a third! I can bear no more! Stop, 

166 / The Quest for God 

horrible fiend, give over; I am a man and not such as thou, I have 
not on me the smell of fire, nor the taint of the charnel house. . .1 know 
what human feelings are; I have been taught religion; I have a con- 
science; I have a cultivated mind; I am well versed in science and 

Newman's point is potent: a soul suddenly taken from his or her 
civilised, sophisticated existence by death and poised on the brink of 
the pit, or huddled with other souls in one of its grubby antechambers, 
is conscious first of a loss of status and dignity. The shock of being 
treated like countless other tarnished and damaged creatures, black, 
white, coloured, young, old, dirty and diseased, cursing and blasphem- 
ing or simply howling in strange tongues, the congealed, quivering 
mass of naked humanity, suddenly placed on a footing of total equality 
one with another, is profound and horrifying. The soul's realisation 
that it is not dreaming, that its life on earth has gone, irrevocably, and 
that it is now on its own, without friends, relations, possessions or 
claims to importance of any kind and, not least, that it is totally unfree, 
at the bidding of strange, unknown authorities, is still more disturbing. 
Many self-important people experienced a similar loss, in the turmoils 
of wartime Europe, when the elaborate, secure ant-hill of the prewar 
world was suddenly stamped into total ruins and dust by vast armies, 
and the concentration camps yawned. A man first finding himself, na- 
ked, ordered about, in a concentration camp would have an inkling of 
what Hell is. Or, in present-day life, a man going into a centre for 
treatment of an addiction-drugs, alcohol, over-eating, etc.-will have a 
similar inkling of his insignificance and of the degradation of Hell. A 
duke who was treated for alcoholism in such a clinic told me: 

I was quite prepared for a spartan life, and to be bossed around, but 
the humiliations came as a shock. It was made plain to me I was 
nobody, nothing, just a mess, a nuisance, someone without rights of 
any kind, who deserved nothing but contempt and would be lucky 
if he got a kind word. They kept saying, 'You're not a duke here, you 
know'-though in fact I had made no attempt to say I was. The first 
night, I cried myself to sleep, like a child in his first term at boarding 

The addiction clinic, where the physical pains of withdrawal are com- 
bined with shame and degradation and utter loneliness, to 

Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? / 167 

impose almost unbearable misery on the inmate, is a hint of Hell. But 
no more than a hint. In human life, the ability of those at the bottom of 
the heap to create tiny fragments of happiness for themselves is, fortu- 
nately, infinite. In a concentration camp, in a tent-city of displaced 
persons, in an addiction clinic, once the utter humiliation is accepted, 
and the fact of an equality of misery adjusted to, the human spirit reas- 
serts its capacity to squeeze enjoyment out of life. Above all, friendships 
spring up, in the most unlikely manner, between the most incongruous 
people. With each friend, misery is halved; with two it is quartered-and 
then the positive merits of friendly co-operation in mitigating the 
harshness of life make themselves felt. Within a week, the crushed hu- 
man plant is reviving strongly, hope is returning, the future no longer 
seems unbearable. 

But it is here, of course, that the analogy fails, for there is no adjust- 
ment to Hell, no friendship, no co-operation, nothing but hatred. Jean- 
Paul Sartre, a much spoiled only child who hated the proximity of 
other demanding bodies even at the best of times (unless they were 
abjectly obedient young girls, and even then he wanted them near only 
until his desire was satisfied), portrayed Hell in his play Huis clos as 
'other people'. It is not the demons who are to be feared most, but the 
other lost souls, with their bitter reproaches and recriminations, their 
increasingly hostile presence. George Eliot, perhaps optimistically, 
thought that human heroism and courage was so great that damned 
souls could cling to and comfort each other 'even in the fiery whirlwind 
of Hell'. Well: she may be right-who can say? But I fear not. I suspect 
it is of the nature of Hell that it brings out the worst in every person 
who is there, and that the mutual antagonisms increase with time. 

Moreover, there is one more all-important aspect in which the analogy 
with the concentration camp or the addiction clinic fails-the positive, 
never-ending torment of the loss of God. All the writers on Hell, even 
those who stress the physical torments, like St Alphonsus Liguori, agree 
that the pain of loss is the central suffering of Hell, the one besides 
which all the others pale. It is only in Hell, irrevocably condemned to 
exist there for eternity, that the soul grasps the infinite goodness and 
beauty of God; and the realisation that it has, of its own wilful volition, 
rejected God, 

168 / The Quest for God 

is the sharpest pain of all. It is only in Hell, too, that the soul appreciates, 
for the first time, the sheer enormity of evil, as a reality and as a prin- 
ciple, and sees how it exists as the opposite polarity to God, and so be- 
gins to understand the vertiginous nature of the choice it has made by 
opting for sin. This is a pain beyond mitigation, the sharpness of which 
must grow with time, or with the passage of what serves for time in 

Yet there is a problem here, and I will try to tackle it. The soul de- 
scribed by Newman, the type of person we have been portraying here, 
finding himself in Hell, is not one who has deliberately, consciously 
and in full knowledge of the implications, opted against God and for 
evil. He is a soul who finds himself, as it were, in Hell by mistake. It is 
all a colossal misunderstanding! If he had known what Hell really was- 
if he had been sure of its awful existence-he would not have sinned at 
all, or at least would not have sinned so much. This sinner is a mixed- 
up person, ill-informed, inattentive, weak, silly, vain perhaps and 
shallow, but not a monster. He is not someone who, given the choice, 
would deliberately choose evil in preference for good. Other things 
being equal-and they rarely are equal when there is temptation-he is 
on the side of the angels. Of course, he should have listened more, and 
prayed more, and exerted himself more on the side of goodness, and 
sinned less and been less selfish and silly and weak. But surely he is 
not Hell-fodder, not a person or soul for whom evil and Godlessness 
are the natural environment? 

In implying that such a soul could find itself irrevocably damned in 
Hell, I suspect Newman is reverting to his Protestant background, which 
was not without Evangelical overtones-a background which accepted 
an absolute choice between Heaven and Hell, and rejected Purgatory 
as a Romish superstition. Of course, as a Catholic, Newman fully accep- 
ted the doctrine of Purgatory, and indeed could not have written The 
Dream of Gerontius without Purgatory in mind. But so anxious was he, 
notably in the sermon from which I have just quoted, to stress the 
enormity of sin, that he was liable to slip back into his Protestant abso- 
lutes, and shovel the poor second-rate sinner into the pit, forgetting 
that Purgatory was made precisely for such as him. 

I suspect, following this line of argument, that Hell is not for the 
weak, but for the strong. To become Hell-fodder, a soul must 

Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? / 169 

have a pronounced and ineradicable streak of arrogance, a conviction 
that his or her judgment is infallible. I was taught as a child, and I still 
believe, that we cannot be certain that any one particular human creature 
has ever been sent to Hell, and that it is wrong to assert that anyone, 
however irredeemably wicked he or she may appear, is now in Hell. 
We cannot say Hitler is there, or Stalin, or Mao Tse-tung, though togeth- 
er they were responsible for the deaths of about 40 million people, as 
well as countless other crimes against God and humankind. But if 
anyone in particular is there, such men are likely candidates. 

The first inhabitants of Hell, and still its gaolers, the 'trusties', the 
equivalent of the professional criminals who, in Stalin's Gulag, were 
allowed to bully, torture and work to death the vast numbers of helpless 
political prisoners, were Satan and his angels. Satan tried to set himself 
on a par with his creator, God himself, by demanding an equality of 
judgment and command. He recruited followers, rebelled, and was 
overwhelmed and driven to Hell by the loyal angels. His sin was the 
capital one of pride, an active arrogance which made him think he, like 
God, had the capacity and right to judge between good and evil. He 
himself defined justice and injustice, thus trying to seize a moral power 
which belongs to God alone. The crime of Satan is echoed in those who 
construct for themselves, in political and state terms, systems of morality 
which they, not God, lay down. Thus Lenin, in insisting that inhabitants 
of the Soviet Union must follow what he called 'the Revolutionary 
Conscience', as opposed to the natural conscience implanted in human 
beings by divine power, was guilty of this Satan-like sin. So was Hitler, 
when he ordered all Germans to obey 'the higher law of the Party', as 
opposed to the traditional moral doctrines they were taught at home 
and in the churches. 

However, we must not suppose that totalitarian leaders alone are the 
archetype of Hell's denizens. The archetype, rather, is anyone who, 
driven by pride in their own power or skill, their own beauty or genius, 
their own unaided intellect, abrogates to themselves a Godlike role. 
The road to Hell is paved by self-apotheosis. I suspect, therefore, that 
men and women of outstanding intellect and gifts are peculiarly liable 
to the temptations which make human Hell-fodder. Those who find 
themselves in Hell-if anyone does-will include painters and composers 

170 / The Quest for God 

writers and philosophers as well as dictators and tyrants. A man, like 
Beethoven, who saw himself, through the sublimity of his work, as an 
intermediary between God and man, was walking close to the precipice. 
So was Tolstoy, whose idea of his own moral righteousness and import- 
ance led him, at times, to see himself-as a friend put it-as 'God's elder 
brother'. Picasso, in his old age, fancied himself as an art-god, a painter 
endowed not just with skill and intelligence and the mastery which 
comes of a lifetime's application to his art, but as a special being, capable 
of transmuting by his divine magic base materials like paints and canvas, 
bronze and stone, clay and paper, into manifestations of the numinous. 
Here was a case of pride, fed by many decades of universal flattery, 
taking a frail moral being to the very brink of eternal damnation. 

Matisse was a similar case. Having completed the chapel he had de- 
signed and decorated in the South of France, he showed and explained 
his work to two nuns, a prioress and a simple sister whom he had 
known for many years. The prioress thanked him for devoting so much 
time and genius to the glory of God. Matisse replied: 'But I did it all for 
myself.' The sister, shocked, said: 'But Maitre, when you were still at 
work, you told me you were doing it for Almighty God.' Matisse replied 
calmly: 'I am God.' Was he serious? Did he believe what he was saying? 
Art, no less than politics, carries with it a whiff of sulphur, the stench 
of the charnel-house. All men and women of exceptional will and 
achievement, whose work brings them close to or across the normal 
limits of human capacity, are at risk of the Divine Temptation. This is 
a form of moral madness which can all too easily become incurable, ir- 
reversible, permanent, and therefore makes those who succumb to it 
natural inhabitants of an anti-Heaven where they can play out their 
fantasies for all eternity. 

Hell must be an awesome place not so much because of its fires, 
whether real or metaphorical, but because of its deluded occupants. St 
Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, indicates that the blessed in 
Heaven derive satisfaction from the plight of the damned. This obser- 
vation has shocked many people because they understand it to mean 
that the sufferings of Hell constitute one of the pleasures of the saved, 
as if happy souls parade on a sort of celestial balcony to watch the 
devils prodding and incinerating the damned down below. That is, in 
fact, exactly as some 

Does Hell exist, and what is going there like? / 171 

fifteenth-century Flemish and Italian painters presented the scene. But 
Aquinas was making a different point. He was saying that, in Heaven, 
the righteous see, not just through a mirror, darkly, but face to face, the 
two contrasting systems of good and evil: the one they inhabit and 
which they have chosen by their free will, and its counterpart, the system 
of God-denying absolute evil, equally inhabited by those who have 
freely chosen it and where they, the damned-and this is the point of the 
image-are just as at home as the blessed in Heaven. Here we come close 
to solving the mystery of Hell. Hell is not just other people. It is some- 
thing which those who find themselves there have helped to construct. 
It is not so much the prison of the damned as their chosen domicile. 

But if Hell is for the strong in evil, rather than the weak in flesh, we 
cannot be certain that we-the weak majority-are never in peril of it. 
Pride, which takes innumerable forms and burns strongly in the hearts 
of all of us, can never be entirely discounted as a possible moral deton- 
ator which can cause an explosion in our soul. St Jerome says that pride 
lies in wait for us, like a great beast in the desert, a mountain lion or 
puma, which springs on us when we least expect it and crushes our 
living conscience beneath its dreadful claws and fangs. Drugged by, 
imprisoned in, our pride we sleep-walk towards the pit. The only 
safeguard is perpetual watchfulness, a constant asking of ourselves the 
question: 'Is what I am doing my will, or God's?' We should ask this 
every morning and every evening, and at moments of great activity 
and decisiveness, and we must be content only with a strictly honest 
answer. If we cannot truthfully say we are doing, or trying to do, God's 
business, then Hell for us is not an academic question, but a dreadful 
possibility, even perhaps an imminent one. There can be no peace of 
mind for us on the subject of eternal damnation without a total submis- 
sion to God's will. The point was made by Dante seven centuries ago 
and it remains true: the road to peace lies over the dead body of our 

However, we must not assume that, if we escape Hell-and perhaps 
all of will escape it-Heaven is at our command. The process of purgation 
awaits, for virtually all of us. We know, among our own acquaintance, 
people whom we can genuinely pronounce to be 'good'-whom we are 
sure will be saved if anyone is-whom 

172 / The Quest for God 

we admire and perhaps seek to imitate. But are any perfect? Can we 
honestly say that they have no faults of character or performance but, 
on the contrary, are totally committed to doing what is right, in all cir- 
cumstances? I know of no such person: I wish I did, because then I 
would be the acquaintance, even perhaps the friend, of a saint, and so 
possess a model for my own life. That there are such saints, living, vis- 
ible, I do not doubt, but experience and history show them to be rare. 
All the rest of us must be purified at our entrance to the next world so 
that we become worthy of it, are ready for it, and are capable of enjoying 
its infinite blessing to the full. 

Purgation of evil, purification to be fit for the sight of God-not in the 
abstract but in the overwhelming reality of his radiance-is thus a posit- 
ive, creative process. But I have no doubt it is a painful one and a long 
one. Only at the moment of death and the entrance to eternity do we 
become fully aware of the sheer enormity of sin. In the horror and relief 
of that moment we will willingly submit to the ordeal of purgation, an 
ordeal perhaps incomparably more severe than anything we have had 
to suffer in this life, but redeemed by one comforting certitude: that it 
will end and that, when it does, we will be truly ready for God. At that 
stage, the knowledge we are not destined for Hell-which we will then 
be conscious of in all its fearful reality-will be our overwhelming com- 
fort. But let us make no mistake about the agony of purification. Imagine 
being sentenced to the dark heart of the Gulag for the equivalent of 
hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. That is why we must always 
pray for the poor souls in Purgatory, and hope that one day there will 
be people praying for us. 


The timeless world waiting 

It may be true, as some believe, that the efforts of foolish theologians 
to frighten sinners by dwelling on the physical pains and unquenchable 
fires of Hell are counter-productive and cause the more sophisticated 
to lose their faith altogether. I rather doubt it, because the more sophist- 
icated a person is, the more likely he or she will grasp that Hell-fire 
merely represents a failure of imagination, and that there are far more 
dreadful terrors with which to punish us if the supreme being is minded 
to do so. I believe, on the contrary, that the notion of eternal or at least 
inconceivably harsh punishment is if anything a buttress of faith, for 
human beings believe in retribution and want the wicked of this world 
to be dealt with adequately in the next. No one ever lost his or her faith 
by rejecting the idea of Hell. And Hell is still, albeit to a more limited 
extent than in the old days, a deterrent to sinners. I know of one beau- 
tiful and fashionable lady who is prevented from deceiving her husband 
and taking lovers almost entirely because she fears she will be sent to 
Hell if she does. 

No; it is far more likely, in my opinion, that faith is eroded or dimin- 
ished-perhaps even fatally undermined-by our lamentable failure to 
make the rewards of Heaven seem real and worth having. Heaven, as 
presented by the Judeo-Christian tradition, lacks genuine incentive. 
Indeed, it lacks definition of any kind. It is the great hole in theology. 
Even St Paul, usually so brilliant a writer, so wonderfully adept at get- 
ting us excited about the facts and mysteries of faith, fails us here, and 
falls into flatulence: 'no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of 
man conceived, what God has prepared for those that love him'. That 
is no better, you may think, than Lear's imprecise threat: 'I shall do such 
things-as yet I know not-as 'twill be the terror of the earth.' Heaven is 

274 / The Quest for God 

a case of words fail us. And not just words, ideas too. Where Milton 
confessed himself at a loss, who can expect to do better? Certainly not 
T.S. Eliot, a fine poet of strong imagination, who admitted he did not 
know how to make Heaven interesting. 

The danger is that inability to conjure up some convincing and ap- 
pealing notion of Heaven ends by casting doubt on its very existence. 
The pagans seem to have had no such difficulty. We are all familiar 
with Olympus-the mountain itself, the marble antechambers and throne- 
rooms and gardens and pools of this sporting-place of the gods. We 
know all about Valhalla too, how it was built and what happened to it. 
But these are just lath-and-plaster things, stage-scenery. Heaven is dif- 
ficult to describe precisely because it is real, rather than a twopence- 
coloured projection of our childish imaginations. It was St Cyprian, I 
think, who coined the phrase 'the Beatific Vision', and summed up the 
delights of Heaven as the final unveiling of the invisible: 'How great 
will be your glory and happiness', he wrote, 'to be allowed to see God, 
to be honoured with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with 
Christ your Lord and God. . .to delight in the joy of immortality in the 
Kingdom of Heaven with the righteous and God's friends.' But that 
does not get us very far either. The new Catholic Catechism, normally so 
impressive, has no fresh ideas. Its definition is: 'Heaven is the ultimate 
end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, 
definitive happiness.' A little desperate, it falls back on quoting St 
Cyprian and, worse, dragging up that tired old bull of Pope Benedict 
XII, Benedictus Deus, which begins with the off-putting formula: 'By 
virtue of our apostolic authority, we define the following', and then 
produces something which reads as though it was drafted by a celestial 
lawyer, and tells us nothing at all. Finally, the Catechism admits that 
'This mystery of blessed communion with God' is 'beyond all under- 
standing and description'. But if we cannot describe it and, even if we 
could, cannot understand it, how do we know we want it? It is all rather 
like the investment opportunity offered during the eighteenth-century 
South Sea Bubble, whose promoter invited the public to subscribe im- 
mediately to 'Something Wonderful, the Nature of which shall Shortly 
Be Revealed'. 

It may be that, when we think of horrors, our imaginations are sharp 
and precise, but that when asked to describe what we want 

The timeless zvorld waiting / 175 

most of all, we become vague and dream-like and vaporous. There is 
something disturbingly imprecise even about the word 'Heaven' itself. 
I am not referring to the Hellenistic nonsense of the seven heavens, 
though many in the early church, including St Paul, seemed to have 
swallowed it for want of anything better. What I mean, rather, is that 
the church did not seem to be sure whether the word meant the sky, 
which we can more or less see, or something beyond and above the 
sky, which is invisible. God is often presented as being 'above Heaven' 
and St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that Christ, since his 
Ascension, reigns supreme with the Father 'far above all heavens'. 

In fact if we look closely at the ancient texts in both the Old and New 
Testaments, references to Heaven are more about moving into it or 
down from it, rather than actually being there, or what it consists of. 
The Jews and early Christians could visualise the dynamics of transfer- 
ring from this world to the next, but what was actually there when you 
got to it was beyond them. At the risk of appearing blasphemous, it is 
all rather like Jack and the Beanstalk: the beanstalk itself is real and 
vivid, but what is at the top of it is much less precise, or interesting. So 
these writers, and the artists who followed their scripts, concentrated 
more on the actual process of getting up to Heaven or down from it, 
than on the place. Their starting-point was what happened to Elijah, 
when he was swept up to Heaven in a whirlwind, and what happened 
to Jesus Christ, when he ascended to Heaven under his own power. 
The ancients were anxious to distinguish clearly between these two 
events. St Bede, in his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, insists 
that Elijah merely went up into the sky, while Christ went much further, 
into Heaven itself. This squares with a Jewish legend that Elijah did not 
go exactly to Heaven, but to somewhere in its close vicinity. St Gregory 
the Great also takes this line, but adds that Elijah was not self-propelled, 
and the birds and the airstream which carried him could not get beyond 
a certain point, whereas Christ, being a living autogyro, could ascend 
as far as he wished. 

From the earliest times right up to the end of the sixteenth century, 
artists were fascinated by the act of ascension, for obvious visual reasons, 
and allowed it to divert their attention from Heaven itself. They went 
to considerable pains to recreate the actual experiences of the Apostles, 
who saw Christ levitate himself up 

276 / The Quest for God 

into the heavens and out of sight. But whereas early Christian artists 
from the oriental tradition, mainly in Syria and Palestine, take a static 
view, presenting the Ascension as already accomplished, with Christ 
seated passively in Heaven and the Apostles worshipping him from 
below, in the more dynamic Western tradition, Christ tends to move 
upwards, with the Apostles following his ascent with their eyes. 

In a famous essay published in 1943, The Image of the Disappearing 
Christ, the art historian Meyer Shapiro drew attention to a remarkable 
artistic innovation which appeared in England around the year 1000. 
In this novel presentation, only the legs or feet of Christ were represen- 
ted, the rest of his body disappearing into the clouds. The artist obvi- 
ously wanted to show Christ from the angle of vision of the Apostles 
at the precise moment when he began to disappear-the visual heart of 
the miracle, as it were. Shapiro describes this English artistic invention 
as 'astonishingly precocious', since it is a step forward from the illusion- 
ism of the ancient world and 'goes beyond the most advanced natural- 
istic classical representation of ascension and disappearance'. It fore- 
shadows the artistic innovations of the Renaissance, introduced by 
masters like Mantegna. Shapiro traced the source of this innovation to 
a tenth-century text, in Old English, called the Blickling Homilies, which 
includes a sermon on the Ascension. The key passage, in translation, 

The cloud [as described in the Acts of the Apostles] did not make its 
appearance there, because our Lord had need of the cloud's aid at 
the Ascension; nor did the cloud raise him up, but he took the cloud 
before him, since he hath all creatures in his hand, and by his divine 
power and by his eternal wisdom, according to his will, he orders 
and disposes all things. And he, in the cloud, disappeared from their 
sight and ascended into Heaven, as a sign that from thence in like 
manner he will on Doomsday again come to earth in a cloud, with 
hosts of angels. 

The writer, and following him the English artists of the early eleventh 
century, were clearly anxious to make a point which to them was im- 
portant, and we may well think it important too when we understand 
it. Unlike earlier writers, both Jewish and Christian, and their attendant 
artists, who presented the heroes of these ascents as travelling on clouds, 
which thus became a 

The timeless world waiting / 277 

species of vehicle on whose support and propulsion they are dependent, 
this novel presentation depicts Christ, who is all-powerful and inde- 
pendent of nature, ascending through clouds. He may, in this and other 
depictions of his ascending to Heaven and descending to judge, carry 
the cloud around with him, as a visual aid, but he does not need it in 
any way-he is 'above the clouds' both literally and figuratively. 

These Dark Age English writers and artists were, in fact, struggling 
to cope with the theological truth that Heaven is both everywhere and 
nowhere. They had to think of Heaven as 'above'-where else could they 
put it, seeking as they were to give it definite existence in the minds of 
their congregations?-but they knew it was not material even in the sense 
that an insubstantial cloud was material. I have noticed that Michelan- 
gelo, in his presentation of the divine reality in the wall and vault of 
the Sistine Chapel, similarly fights shy of giving Heaven visible sub- 
stance, and he makes it clear that Christ is not in any way anchored in 
or dependent upon physical objects or scenery. There is in fact no 
heavenly scenery. Christ is shown in the act of descending from Heaven 
(not revealed) in order to carry out judgment, and it is almost as if the 
artist is relieved he can present him thus, as it spares him the duty of 
depicting a place which he knows is beyond the powers of his imagin- 
ation. The reader may wonder why I dwell on such points. But it is 
important to remember that these artists-in Michelangelo's case one of 
the very greatest of artists-devoted an enormous amount of time and 
effort to thinking about these things, much more than we would dream 
of doing. They racked their brains to make every episode in the whole 
story of the Old and New Testaments as vivid and real as they could 
achieve. That was their job, and though they were conscious of their 
skills and anxious to demonstrate them for the sake of their art and 
reputations, the spiritual urge to do God's work through their brushes 
was also strong. So they felt they had to get it right or, if that was beyond 
them, avoid the problem by concentrating on other aspects where they 
could tell the truth. Hence Michelangelo, who was so solid and three- 
dimensional in all his forms when he knew exactly what he was doing, 
becomes vague and insubstantial the nearer he gets to Heaven. 

What of the artists who did try to come to grips with Paradise? 

278 / The Quest for God 

They are few in number, and the closer we examine their work, the less 
we find. We have already noted the reluctance of Hieronymus Bosch, 
who so lovingly and so often depicted Hell, to get involved with 
Heaven. We know very little about Bosch. We do not know when he 
was born, who his teachers were, or his friends and patrons, or what 
led him to create the extraordinary kind of art in which he delighted. 
So we can only speculate on why he preferred Hell to Heaven. But one 
reason, surely, was that he discovered by experiment, as many other 
artists have done, that it is less difficult and much more satisfying to 
depict suffering than ecstasy. We have all suffered. Few of us have ex- 
perienced ecstasy. Suffering has a human face, but ecstasy, especially 
at its most intense, is superhuman or even non-human. 

Yet Bosch, like all artists, loved contrasts, and he knew that he could 
make his Hell more real by depicting opposites or alternatives. In this 
great triptych in the Prado of Madrid, known variously as The Garden 
of Delights or the Millennium, he gets as close to Paradise as he feels able. 
The right panel is Hell, but the central one, twice its size, shows the 
Parthly Paradise in enormous detail, and the left-hand one actually 
takes us right into the Garden of Eden, whose scenery and inhabitants 
are presented as a background to the figure of Christ presenting the 
newly created Eve to Adam. The whole of this masterpiece was subjected 
to intense scrutiny over decades by the Berlin art historian Wilhelm 
Fraenger, who produced evidence that its symbolism and iconography, 
and its most vivid episodes, reflected Bosch's membership of a sectarian 
group known as the Community of the Free Spirit, which flourished 
on the eve of the Reformation. That need not concern us. What also 
emerges from this huge and rich painting is Bosch's inability, try as he 
may, to depict perfection, or even unalloyed happiness. In the Garden 
of Eden, Christ radiates serenity. Eve is submissive and humble, and 
Bosch has succeeded in making Adam appear quite innocent. But even 
in Eden we are shown some vicious encounters between predatory 
animals. Some unpleasant specimens, especially of savage bird-life, are 
seen disporting in a circular pond at the bottom of the panel, and enga- 
ging in beak-to-beak battles over fish. From the pool formed by the 
Fountain of Life, disgusting reptilian creatures are plodding ashore to 
begin a career of uncleanly depredations. The distant scenery. 

The timeless zvorld waiting / 179 

which seems to be coming to vicious life too, is not reassuring at all. 

When we move to the central millenarian panel, Bosch provides us 
with innumerable examples of pleasures being enjoyed, usually of the 
grosser sort however, and the depravities and excesses make an early 
appearance, leading in turn to the production of monstrous forms of a 
life-threatening kind, and a growing air of hysteria. Like most artists, 
I imagine that Bosch worked from left to right, laying down his design 
thus, then painting it in accordingly, and one feels his enthusiasm for 
the project increasing as he moves towards the inferno on the right. The 
topography of the right-hand side of the central panel is marked by a 
disagreeable-looking owl sitting on the head of a multi-limbed human, 
by some sinister creeping shellfish, of giant size, making their appear- 
ance and, above all, by what appears to be a gigantic floating bomb or 
mine, with detonators sticking out, which has drifted ashore in the top 
right-hand corner. When Bosch finally reaches the right-hand panel 
and Hell, he is hard put to it to create contrasting horrors, but he works 
with a will and succeeds in producing some of his most spine-tingling 
effects, including a revolting amorous pig dressed as an abbess, a mu- 
sical Hell in which the harps, bagpipes, viols and so forth have become 
instruments of torture and execution, and, not least, at the top of the 
panel, a vivid scene of the entire world in flames as a result of what 
appears to have been a thermo-nuclear explosion-the evil bomb in the 
central panel having, presumably, gone off. In short. Heaven seems 
very far away. 

However, I never expected much help from Bosch. What is more 
disappointing is that artists whom we feel are much closer by tempera- 
ment to the beatific vision also seem unable to get to grips with Heaven 
as a fact. William Blake, more so perhaps than any medieval or 
Renaissance or Baroque artist, was fond of depicting God the Father, 
who makes innumerable appearances throughout Blake's oeuvre. But 
the Father is always shown doing things-gesturing to Job, throwing out 
Satan, presenting his Son, and so forth, never in repose in his own 
habitat. Heaven itself is missing, or touched upon only in the most 
fragmentary and tantalising way. This is curious, for Blake was accus- 
tomed, as he claimed, to seeing visions of all kinds, of kings and famous 
men and women 

180 / The Quest for God 

in history, as well as sacred personages, and then setting them down 
in line and colour. Why, then, did he have no proper vision of Heaven, 
so that he could show it to us with his matchless pencil? We do not 
know. But the fact is I have examined all 1,193 plates in Martin Butler's 
comprehensive catalogue of William Blake's works and I am none the 
wiser about his ideas on Heaven. 

Caspar David Friedrich, whom one would have thought of as a likely 
visionary source for the heavenly landscape, also lets us down. His 
immensities and solitudes, enthralling though they are, are worldly or 
perhaps other-worldly, but not heavenly. They are mystic, but sad, not 
ecstatic. He attempts a vision of Christianity, with a mystic cathedral 
ascending into Heaven, but that is not the same thing. John Martin is 
the only considerable painter of the romantic epoch who rises to the 
challenge, not once but twice. Both in The Plains of Heaven and The Ce- 
lestial City and River of Bliss he tackles the problem of depicting the to- 
pography of Heaven head-on and on the largest possible scale to permit 
the maximum detail. The Celestial City, which is privately owned but 
was exhibited in a St James's gallery in 1975, where I was able to exam- 
ine it, is nearly six-and-a-half feet long by four feet high. The Plains of 
Heaven is even bigger, being ten feet by six, but is unfortunately in the 
Tate Gallery and therefore rarely if ever on display, space having to be 
found for piles of bricks, rubbish-sculpture and other important master- 
pieces of modern art. The two paintings are similar: vast landscapes 
ending in low mountains and bordered by forests of cedars and similar 
trees, with misty clouds and tranquil lakes and pools occupying the 
saucers thus formed. Fairy-like figures rest gracefully on the edges of 
these waters, and in The Celestial City a flying angel transports a newly 
arrived human to join the heavenly throng. All this is decorous and 
even pleasing, but it is not imaginative and, in the end, is unhelpful. 
Martin's visions of God's wrath and of Babylonian cities being riven 
by lightning or consumed by fire or engulfed by rising floods are much 
more exciting. But what can you expect? Any Hollywood director will 
tell you that it is the disaster movies which are box-office. Whoever in 
his or her sense invested money in an epic about Heaven? 

The difficulty, I expect, is that our imaginations are inhibited not 
merely by the limitations of space, from which we cannot 

The timeless zvorld waiting / 181 

escape, but by the less obvious but even more severe limitations of time. 
If we sit down to think about Heaven, one obvious approach is to say 
to ourselves: 'When was I most happy? When did I experience the most 
complete and intense feelings of delight? Cannot I conceive of an exper- 
ience where these feelings are enormously enhanced and prolonged 
indefinitely? That will give me some inkling of Heaven.' Not long ago 
I heard a simple Carmelite friar preach a sermon on Heaven in which 
he adopted this technique, laboriously going through the most agreeable 
sensual pleasures he had experienced, all delightfully innocent, to be 
sure-swallowing a fresh mango, looking out over the plains of Tuscany 
from a Florentine tower, listening to Mozart's Don Giovanni - and then 
multiplying them. But all these delights, however intense, are fleeting 
or terminate themselves by their very nature. They are time-bound. 
Less fastidious people than the friar would instance sexual orgasm as 
the most intense pleasure to be had on earth. Might not that be, 
enormously enhanced, an indication of the kind of voluptuous enjoy- 
ment we experience in Heaven? But a sexual orgasm, by definition, is 
a happening, an episode: it has a beginning and an end. However pro- 
longed, it is not a state. 

Our recollections of happiness are glimpses. They have much to do 
with our age, our state of mind, our expectations, our innocence even. 
I have a perfect visual memory of one such moment, part real, part re- 
construction. It is Paris, at a warm, clear spring noontime in the early 
1950s. I am twenty-one or so, and with my newly acquired red-haired 
Breton mistress. We are on the Left Bank and have just sat down at a 
table at the Cafe des Deux Magots, on the corner of the Place Saint- 
Germain-des-Pres, on the terrace outside, with the old church opposite. 
At a neighbouring table, Jean-Paul Sartre has just ventured out from 
his nearby apartment, and has sat down and ordered himself a glass of 
whisky. Soon he is joined by Simone de Beauvoir and, miraculously, 
by his former friend Albert Camus, now reconciled, and not yet killed 
in a car crash. Andre Malraux, with his exquisite daughter Florence, 
gestures defiantly from another table. At a third, Francois Mauriac sits 
in front of an austere Infusion de menthe, composing his weekly Bloc- 
notes for the back page of L'Express. Juliette Greco is there, looking as 
if she will burst into song at any moment, so beautiful is the weather, 
but actually 

182 / The Quest for God 

settling down to a long, cool pastis. And suddenly there is a flurry, as 
the young Brigitte Bardot, still a schoolgirl, though a precocious one, 
scampers in swinging her satchel and twirling the elastic of her panama 
hat on one rosy finger. . .So it goes on, perfect in retrospect-no waiting 
or overcrowding, no anger or argument, no drunkenness or ennui, no 
hangovers, sex in anticipation but not in its gross actuality, elevated or 
at any rate sophisticated conversation, a magic moment indefinitely 
prolonged. But how could such a tableau be prolonged? It is destroyed 
by time as surely as any other sensual or even intellectual pleasure. 
And not only does all human pleasure fade, it tends to bring retribution 
too. What can be more innocent than the happy laughter of children? 
What can be more inevitable, as the laughter rises to fever-pitch, than 
that there will be, as the old nannies said, tears before bedtime? 

It is only when we escape from time, as well as space, that we can 
possibly begin to imagine what Heaven will be like. When astronauts 
are being trained for trips into space, one of the things they have to 
learn is to cope with weightlessness. Coping with timelessness is far 
more difficult. In fact we would not know how to start. The very word 
'start' is time-bound. We and our bodies are more thoroughly prisoners 
of time than we are held captive by space. We can move now at will on 
this earth-and will soon move about space with comparative freedom- 
but we cannot get out of the time dimension at all. Even when we have 
the peculiar experience of flying West and appearing to gain hours-or 
even if we cross the Pacific capturing a whole extra day-it is always 
taken away from us in the end. It it an illusion that we can escape from 
time, even for an instant, in this world. Yet that is precisely the first 
thing we do when we enter the next, and therein lies the huge difference 
and the chief obstacle to imagining it. No satiation, no culmination, no 
climax, no boredom, no repetition, no expectation or recollection, no 
delay or waiting, no sense of time passing, nothing impending or im- 
minent or changing-just one timeless instant of total ecstasy. 

Well, that is the best I can do and it is not enough. I am not so sure, 
on reflection, that we should try to imagine the pleasures of Heaven at 
all. In all probability, the essence of Heaven lies not in receiving pleasure 
but in giving it. Just as God created the universe 

The timeless zvorld waiting / 183 

from and for love, so Heaven is its culminating fulfilment and is the 
place of love, where love is given in its plenitude. God gives us all his 
love and for the first time we are in a position to receive it fully and 
undiluted. But, at the same time, purged of all imperfections and human 
limitation, we can reciprocate that love with something of his own 
power and intensity. We are become vessels of love, and in that instant 
of loving reciprocation we acquire the ecstasy which is timeless and 

Let me add a footnote to this clumsy analysis. We may not be able 
to imagine eternal life. But we can pray that, in some way, we can be- 
come worthy of it, ready for it, capable of experiencing it. I have said 
little about prayer in this survey so far. But in the many perplexities of 
dogmatic and moral theology, some of which I have tried to sort out, 
prayer is the invariable solace. It does not necessarily solve problems, 
but it always makes them easier to bear. It rarely dispels the darkness, 
but it creates a small corner of light on the gloomiest occasions. It is the 
one thing I have found in life which never fails completely, and it is 
time to say something about it. 


Talking to the God we do not know and 
cannot prove exists 

This is the most important chapter in my book. We may not be able to 
begin to understand God. We may not even be able to believe in him. 
We may be confused by the mysteries, contradictions and improbabil- 
ities of faith, and unable to unravel them in our minds. But we can all 
pray. It is the one resource that can never be taken away from us except 
by the total collapse of our minds. We may be impotent, penniless, in 
prison, bound hand and foot, stricken in all our limbs, unable to move, 
blindfold and gagged. But we can still pray. It is the last weapon of the 
weak, the starving, the helpless, the puzzled, the unsure. 

Yet, in its own way, it is the most powerful weapon of all. What is 
prayer? When we pray to God there are things, each of huge importance, 
implicit in our action. First, there is the acknowledgment that God, albeit 
all-powerful and creator of the universe, is not an impersonal force or 
source of energy or colossal agent of nature, but is an actual being, who 
can be addressed in a meaningful way. Prayer is directed to a personal 
God, who receives it and listens to it-and who may answer it. Second, 
prayer reflects the fact that our relationship with this personal, receptive 
God, who hears what we have to say, is itself direct and personal, not 
mediated by a hierarchy or filtered through an institution or relayed 
by an interpreter, but one-to-one, always. It is an amazing thought that, 
of all the powerful people in the universe, protected by banks of security 
guards and secretaries and personal assistants and scrambler telephones 
and ex-directory numbers and protocol, the one who is master of them 
all is totally, instantly and invariably accessible. Just occasionally, when 
one is struggling to get through to a high functionary or at least to make 
sure a request is put to him or her, the protective screen, as it were, 
breaks down 

Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists / 185 

and the great personage picks up the phone him or herself: 'Yes-what 
is it?' It happened to me once with a prime minister. But with God it 
happens all the time. Many years ago, I was discussing Papal Infallibility 
with a Jesuit. 'I see/ said I, 'you mean that the Pope has a private line 
to God?' 'No/ said this Jesuit, 'we all have a private line to God.' 

In one respect this is indeed true. The conversation may be one-way. 
We may speak and God may choose not to answer at the time; or his 
answer may be incomprehensible to us, ambiguous, enigmatic. But we 
can be certain that he hears. This is one reason I say that prayer is the 
resource of all. If someone says to me, 'I don't believe in God-so how 
can I pray to him?', I reply, 'That does not follow at all. You may not 
believe in God, but that does not prevent God believing in you. God's 
existence is independent of your believing in him.' So it makes very 
good sense for the unbeliever to pray for faith, just as it makes sense 
for the believer to pray for more faith, as I constantly do. In a way, the 
prayer for faith is the purest form of prayer. 'Lord, I believe; help thou 
mine unbelief.' Moreover, it is well to remember that those without 
faith, but who nevertheless pray for it, are praying for the greatest gift 
of all. Faith in God is the most precious possession any of us can have, 
especially if it is strong and healthy and exuberant. With faith all things 
are possible, but without it all other possessions are ultimately mean- 
ingless. So to pray for faith is the most ambitious of all prayers-you are 
asking God to give you the key to everything else. It makes sense, then, 
that those who should pray hardest are precisely the agnostics and 
atheists and doubters. Thus I encourage them, usually not to much 
purpose. But sometimes one listens. 

So God hears all of us. But he may not answer. Then we must pray 
again. Persistence in prayer is of the essence of supplication. Primitive 
human beings soon discovered this and it was characteristic of the first 
civilisations. All the earliest prayers and litanies from the Ancient Near 
East are repetitive and designed to be said often. I suppose men and 
women learned very early that their own rulers and great people had 
to be petitioned again and again before they responded. So they were 
prepared to accept that prayer might be a long-term undertaking. When 
the Ancient Egyptians transferred the dead from the right bank of the 
Nile, the land of the living, to the left bank, where the dead were buried 
in their 

186 / The Quest for God 

tombs and pyramids, they set up prayer temples immediately bordering 
the river. If the dead man was important enough, these tomb-temples 
were served by resident priests. In any event services were conducted 
at dawn and dusk, and prayers were said on behalf of the dead man. 
These activities were endowed and in some cases went on for hundreds 
of years, the same prayers being recited daily, until some kind of mis- 
fortune, usually the collapse of that particular epoch and the dissolution 
of the kingdom into chaos-known in Egyptian history as an Intermediate 
Period-broke the continuity of prayer, never to be resumed. In Europe 
similar Christian endowments from the Middle Ages persisted for long 
periods too, until Reformation, revolution, war or pillage frustrated the 
intentions of the pious. Often the endowments continue to be enjoyed, 
but the intentions and prayers are neglected. In Oxford and Cambridge, 
atheist dons fill their bellies with the good things the munificence of 
the college founders make possible, while saying no corresponding 
prayers for their benefactors' souls. But sometimes the practice survives 
all vicissitudes: King Henry VI of England was not a fortunate monarch 
in his own time, but the scholars of Eton College continue to pray for 
the man responsible for their foundation, half a millennium after his 
death. That is persistence in prayer. 

We all know that it sometimes works too. When I was a small boy, 
in the 1930s, all the Catholics of England, and I think in most countries 
of the world, said some prayers every Sunday, after Mass, for 'the 
Conversion of Russia', by which was meant the overthrow of the Soviet 
Communist regime and the return to the free practice of religion there. 
Nothing happened, year after year, and decade after decade. I never 
had any doubt that these prayers would eventually be answered, just 
as I had no doubt, at a purely secular level of conviction, that the odious 
and evil Soviet regime would eventually be destroyed, or destroy itself. 
And so it happened in dramatic form at the end of the 1980s, and nearly 
three-quarters of a century of prayer were eventually answered. You 
may say: the Soviet Union would have collapsed anyway. But we do 
not know that, and we certainly do not know that it would have col- 
lapsed so soon. 

The world of antiquity understood the value of repetition and persist- 
ence in prayer. Every request is a form of prayer, if it be 

Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists / 187 

made decently and honourably, and the first prayer recorded in the 
Old Testament is the prayer of Abraham to God to spare Sodom and 
Gomorrah. Abraham asks God to spare the Cities of the Plain if enough 
righteous men are found there, and the prayer is notable for its persist- 
ence and repetition- Abraham first sets the viable figure at fifty, then 
forty-five, then forty, then twenty, and finally ten. This first prayer was 
not a formal prayer, but was made on the spur of the moment in re- 
sponse to God's angry intimation that he had punitive plans for the 
cities. But it had many of the characteristics of a set prayer and that is 
why the authors of Genesis put it down as they did. 

However, among the Ancient Hebrews prayers soon attained perman- 
ent form and became, as it were, universal prayers as opposed to par- 
ticular ones, though they continued to have nuggets of particular history 
buried in them. The best of them were the form of musical poetry known 
as psalmody, the psalms employing the Ancient Hebrew poetic device 
known as parallelism, though they are not strictly speaking in metre, 
or if they are we have not yet identified it. Parallelism is well suited to 
prayer because it involves an element of repetition. It is of the kind of 
speech-protocol suitable when addressing a great personage. Thus, 
synonymous parallelism simply repeats the same thought in slightly 
different words-'Hear my crying O God: Give ear unto my prayer.' In 
antithetical parallelism, the first 'member' is contrasted with the second: 
'A merry heart doth good like a medicine: But a broken spirit drieth 
the bones.' Then there is synthetic parallelism, in which the first member 
is developed by a second, similar thought, or a third. Thus: 'The kings 
of the earth stand up: And the rulers take counsel together: Against the 
Lord and against his Anointed.' There are further variations of this 
device, identified by scholars as climactic, introverted, stair-like and 
emblematic parallelisms, but all of them have the prayer-like character- 
istic of repetition. 

I am going into this detail because the psalms are so important-and 
beautiful. They are perfect prayers. Considering the oldest of them were 
probably written well over 3,000 years ago, it is remarkable how many 
still resonate so powerfully, how many echoes they still find in our 
hearts, so that we can say or sing them to God in all sincerity, although 
the circumstances which 

188 / The Quest for God 

originally drew them from anguished Hebrew breasts have long since 
passed away. There are human permanences of hope and despair, sor- 
row and anger, love, laughter and tears in these ancient prayers which 
will endure as long as our race. 

There are 150 psalms, divided into five groups. Internal evidence of 
different groupings indicates that these 150 were selected from a larger, 
probably much larger, number. They are the best, or were thought to 
be the best. Those who compiled the Hebrew Masoretic Text of the Old 
Testament evidently believed that they were all composed by King 
David. So did St Ambrose and St Augustine, great theologians and 
scholars and judicious men not easily taken in by pious nonsense. On 
the other hand, St Jerome, a closer student of the Bible than either, re- 
fused to believe it and so, many centuries later, did Jean Calvin, who 
was a keen man for the psalms and made them the centrepiece, almost, 
of his approved liturgy. It seems evident now that they were composed 
by a number of authors at different dates. But some are clearly very 
ancient and could have been written under the first monarchs of Israel 
and even by David himself. He was a most remarkable man by any 
standards, not only a great leader and warrior, but an introspective, 
imaginative and thoughtful individual who lived on his nerves as well 
as by his wits and courage: quite likely a poet, in fact, and certainly a 
musician, as we are told explicitly by that part of the Old Testament 
which is most reliable for factual accuracy and detail. David believed 
in public performance and participated in it, and religious poetry set 
to music was exactly what he liked. 

There is, too, an element of state policy in some of the psalms which 
suggest to me a kingly hand. And the psalmist's zeal for the right often 
found expression in a passionate desire to see God's vengeance inflicted 
on the wicked, who are as like as not enemies of state. These Imprecatory 
Psalms, as they are termed (58, 68, 69, 109, 137, etc.) are distantly remin- 
iscent of the Ancient Egyptian Execration Texts, repetitive and rhythmic 
cursing-prayers for invoking the wrath of various gods on Pharaoh's 
enemies (and later, in vulgar use, by individuals against personal en- 
emies) and which reek of paganism at its most distasteful. The Imprec- 
atory Psalms are potent and gamey stuff too, and when the somewhat 
mealy-mouthed Anglican bishops prepared the revised Book of 

Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists / 189 

Common Prayer in the 1920s, they omitted from public recitation these 
and similar psalms whose tone of hatred and revenge they considered 
inconsistent with the spirit of Christianity. This may have been one 
reason why members of the House of Commons, who took a more ro- 
bust view of things, rejected the measure in 1928. 

The book of Psalms as it has come down to us is a liturgical work for 
regular, public performance. These prayers are meant to be chanted or 
sung by an entire congregation, with or without music, and there is 
little doubt that collectively they formed the official hymn book of the 
Second Temple, erected after the return of the Jews from Babylonian 
exile. They were rather like the Book of Common Prayer or the Stonyhurst 
Canzionale which I used at school. When, at the Reformation, the psalms 
were translated into English and put to music, and roared out by con- 
gregations of many thousands at St Paul's Cross, immediately outside 
St Paul's Cathedral in London, the effect may not have been very differ- 
ent from what took place at the Temple in Jerusalem in the second half 
of the first millennium BC. 

But the transcendent merit of the psalms is that they lend themselves 
to private, solitary prayer as well as to public performance. Jesus Christ 
seems to have recited the psalms to himself and he certainly employed 
ideas from them in his discourses (e.g. the metaphor from Psalm 118 
of 'the stone which the builders rejected'). He quoted the psalms (22 
and 31) even on the Cross. And it is hard to think of any great man of 
the early Christian Church, from St Paul on-or, for that matter, any 
great rabbi-who did not make continual and extensive use of the psalms. 
St Augustine worked out in his lengthy commentary on the psalms that 
the Christian message is prefigured in almost every one. St Jerome and 
St Ambrose, and many other doctors and teachers, recommended 
Christians to use the psalms constantly. And they did. When I was a 
boy, every priest of the Roman Catholic Church who said the Divine 
Office from his breviary dutifully got through all the psalms once a 
week. (This has now been changed: I do not know why-perhaps because 
priests are thought to be too busy doing others things, like preaching 
the 'social gospel', etc.) The Anglican liturgy goes through the cycle 
once a month. Devotion to the psalms cuts across every barrier of reli- 
gious temperament 

190 / The Quest for God 

and affiliation. It was one thing people as diverse as monkish Benedict- 
ines and fastidious Puritans, Luther and Francis Xavier, Wesley and 
Newman, had in common-they loved and continually recited the psalms. 

Even more striking was the fact that, over the centuries, the psalms 
were the daily prayer-fodder of secular men and women as well as ec- 
clesiastics. Warlike knights usually had a little psalter tucked away 
among their gear. It slowly became dog-eared as they used it on cam- 
paign. Kings and queens had their personal psalters, very elaborate 
ones by the leading miniaturists for public display, and much smaller 
ones, still richly decorated though, for their personal use. These books 
too, where they survive, often show the marks of continual use. It seems 
to me a pity that this habit of reciting the psalms to oneself has lapsed 
among most people. They still have a huge amount to offer us all, and 
I am sure that many today, of all ages, both sexes, all kinds of tempera- 
ment, including those who find regular religious worship distasteful 
and personal prayer difficult, would be astonished, if they looked into 
the psalms, by their relevance and riches. They are, as one poet put it, 
'The pastoral heart of England'-and of other lands too. 

The psalms, being both public and private, transcend the fundamental 
division of prayer. In the ancient world, I imagine virtually all prayer 
was public. The ancients did not like or understand the need for privacy. 
There was something subversive about private acts. Even in private, 
men prayed aloud. They read aloud, always. Silent reading seems to 
have been unknown in the classical world and came into use only in 
the second half of the fourth century AD. When St Augustine first met 
St Ambrose, he was struck by the fact that the great Bishop of Milan 
read to himself: 'His eyes scanned the page, and his mind penetrated 
its meaning, but his voice and tongue were silent.' Ambrose certainly 
prayed silently too. But he saw the point of public prayer better than 
anyone else in those times. It was St Ambrose, in the splendid new ba- 
silica he completed in Milan in 386, who created the prototype medieval 
cathedral worship, with daily Mass, regular prayers at morning and 
evening and sometimes at other periods of the day, and special cere- 
monies to commemorate the saints according to a strict calendar. To 
combat Arians and other heretics, and the lingering paganism of the 
dying classical world, he deliberately 

Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists / 191 

dramatised the cathedral services, clothing the priests in splendid 
vestments, introducing the antiphonal singing of the psalms and new- 
fangled metrical hymns. For this singing he employed professional 
choristers, but he also trained the congregation. He was fighting the 
Arians with their own weapons, for Arius had been a great writer of 
propaganda hymns-popular monotheist ditties for guilds of tradesmen, 
holy marching songs for soldiers, vast numbers of whom had become 
Arians, and sacred sea-shanties for sailors. So Ambrose wrote his own 
hymns for trinitarian Christianity and he had a knack for it. He was the 
first to put Christian prayers into hymn form, turning them into mem- 
orable iambic diameters in four-line stanzas of eight syllables to the 
line, which could easily be set to music and taught to the congregation. 
Four are still in use. 

Thus St Ambrose began the long and fruitful tradition of Christian 
liturgical music, with not only the psalms and hymns but, even more 
important, the principal prayers of the Mass-Kyrie, Confiteor, Gloria, 
Sequence, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei-set to music and 
sung by choir or congregation or both. It is impossible to think of 
Western music without it. First through plain-chant, then through 
polyphony, finally through orchestrated settings of the Mass for full 
choir, these prayers became the texts used by most of the greatest 
composers, from Byrd and Palestrina and Purcell, through Bach and 
Mozart and Beethoven, then on to Verdi and finally, in our own day, 
to Britten, to develop musical forms. It is broadly true to say, from King 
David's day to this, that prayer created music and music was, until the 
rise of secular opera, a form of prayer, or its handmaiden. Some held 
and hold, of course, that prayer and music can be at variance. The 
Puritans of the sixteenth century argued that elaborate music was a 
form of vanity which destroyed prayer, that polyphony in particular 
was an obstacle to sincere prayer. They insisted there could not be more 
than one note on each syllable of a musical setting of a prayer. This was 
not what St Ambrose had believed. He argued that the length and 
complexity of a musical setting, and not least its volume, were important 
elements in public prayer. He specifically approved of harmonics and 
wrote: 'From the singing of men, women, virgins and children, there 
is a harmonious volume of sound, like the waves of the ocean.' He 

192 / The Quest for God 

thought the volume frightened the devil, while the harmonics and the 
beauty of the melodic line were pleasing to God. Over the centuries 
most people have tended to agree with St Ambrose rather than the 
Puritans. The grand musical settings can indeed help us to pray and 
give us spiritual insights that we might not be able to obtain in any 
other way. Who has not been uplifted by Bach's B-minor Mass or his 
settings for the Passion? Who does not feel that the requiem masses 
composed by Mozart and Verdi enable us to think of the dead, and 
their relationship with God, more profoundly but also more positively 
than before we heard the memorial prayers in these sublime settings? 

The word 'uplift' is a key one in prayer. The great eighth-century 
Greek-speaking theologian, St John of Damascus, distinguishes between 
public and vocal prayer, what he calls 'the decent beseeching of Him', 
and private silent prayer, which he calls 'the ascent of the mind to God' 
(ascensus intellectus in Deum). By mind, incidentally, St John did not 
mean the reason (ratio), but the faculty of spiritual vision. An alternative 
way of putting it is expressed in the phrase sursum corda, 'let us lift up 
the heart'. It is as though the person praying, silently and internally, 
not opening his or her mouth, nevertheless almost physically, as it were, 
sends up unspoken words to God. And the words must be tied to their 
thoughts-a point made, in his wicked despair, by Claudius, the bad 
king in Hamlet, who is observed praying in his chapel by the would-be- 
vengeful Prince: 

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below 

Words without thoughts never to Heaven go. 

This practice of private prayer, of uplifting thoughts to Heaven, is 
not as old as public communion with God, but it is ancient nonetheless. 
It was already practised in Jesus Christ's day, and perhaps he learned 
it from his holy mother, Mary, who as a young virgin utters a prayer 
of acceptance the moment she is told by the Angel Gabriel that she is 
to bear the Son of God: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto 
me according to thy word.' Later, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, 
Mary breaks into that exultant prayer we now know as the Magnificat, 
beginning 'My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced 
in God my saviour.' This spontaneous expression of Mary's joy in her 

Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists / 193 

state, with its radical notions of exalting the humble and overthrowing 
the mighty-so prophetic of the coming message of Christianity-may 
seem strange coming from the lips of a young virgin. But it has echoes 
of the psalms too, and we must assume that Mary was brought up in 
a household where the psalms were frequently, perhaps daily, recited, 
and had entered its common, everyday language. At all events, these 
private prayers of Mary, addressed to herself or to a single member of 
her family, were the precursors of the private prayers which Jesus ad- 
dressed to God on a number of occasions, notably when he went into 
the desert to pray for his mission and again, at the end of it, when he 
prayed alone in the Garden of Gethsemane for strength to endure his 
coming Passion. 

In the sixth chapter of St Matthew's Gospel, we find Jesus recommend- 
ing to his disciples that they should avoid ostentatious religiosity. They 
should give to charity privately-'do not sound a trumpet before thee'- 
and, when praying, they should not 'be as the hypocrites are: for they 
love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, 
that they may be seen of men'. Instead they should pray privately: 'But 
thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut 
thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.' Jesus then gave his 
disciples the text of what we now call the Lord's Prayer, and it is clear 
that he intended this as a private prayer in the first instance, though it 
is also perfectly adapted to public services. 

Private prayer, then, is an essential part of Christianity, in accordance 
with the wishes of its founder. Jesus Christ gave his disciples the pattern 
of an ideal prayer, and it has been said daily by all Christians, whatever 
their sectarian leanings, ever since-it is one of the most important things 
they all have in common (though they argue a bit about one or two of 
the phrases). But Jesus did not insist that all private prayer must follow 
patterns. Prayer can take all kinds of shapes, from a simple ejaculation 
to an elaborately composed address, with every possible variation in 
between. But a complete prayer, or group of prayers forming a whole 
for daily recital, ought to contain four distinct elements. I have seen 
these set down in various different ways, but this is the way I would 
describe them. 

First there must be praise and thanksgiving. A prayer begins 

194 / The Quest for God 

with an act of adoration, of recognition of God's goodness and omnipo- 
tence and of one's love for and service to him. This is an act of abasement 
and humility, to be done without reserve because what we are doing 
is not so much saluting a mighty personage as paying reverence to the 
principle and embodiment of goodness and love. In this salutation we 
also acknowledge and render thanks for blessings already received, 
and there should be no difficulty about this because we all have things 
to be grateful for-many more things, as a rule, than we are aware of 
until we begin to list them. 

Then follows confession and repentance. We have to acknowledge, 
having just thanked God for his gifts, that we have made him a poor 
return, and sinned both against him and our neighbours. We have to 
admit this, repent it, and promise to amend. Now all prayers should 
contain this element of confession. It is quite essential, in my view, that 
we dwell upon our failings with great sincerity. That is extremely diffi- 
cult to do-but it does work. In my experience the specific recognition 
of faults does in practice help me to correct them. Hence, in the evening, 
when I can face it-and I cannot always or even very often-I conduct an 
examination of conscience just before I go to bed. A really good, prac- 
tising Christian does it every night without fail. Systematically going 
through the day which has passed, and fearlessly picking out the faults 
and admitting them, is such an unpleasant and sobering experience 
that it does act as a deterrent, however slight, against recidivism. It 
works for a lot of people. It works for me. In fact I believe it works for 
everyone, if done honestly and relentlessly. It is one of the most valuable 
religious practices I know of. Of course, I do not mean that every 
prayer should contain this examination-that is a nightly ritual. But every 
prayer should contain a confessional element. 

The third element deals with our intentions. This is the creative aspect 
of prayer. A religious life does not merely consist of the avoidance of 
sin and the performance of worthy acts as and when the opportunity 
offers. It ought to have more shape than that, a purpose or pattern one 
sets for oneself. We must intend to conduct ourselves in a certain way, 
to give a religious dimension to our normal, professional or worldly 
activities, to try and order our lives so that opportunities to do God's 
will do not merely pop up 

Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists / 195 

or not, as the case may be, but are systematically sought and found. 
The intentional aspect of prayer is a form of dedication, a commitment 
to positive virtue, both spiritual and practical. We ought to be specific 
and concrete, set ourselves goals and determine how they will be 

Finally, and leading from this, come the requests, for ourselves and 
for others. We need help from God in carrying through our intentions, 
especially our efforts to improve ourselves and avoid sin. This is one 
of the most ancient practices of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The First 
Book of Kings, in the Old Testament, shows us Solomon, having just 
succeeded to the throne, asking God for the strength and wisdom to 
discharge his duties properly-'Give therefore thy servant an understand- 
ing heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and 
bad; for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?' We are further 
told that 'the speech pleased the Lord', and because Solomon had been 
unselfish and asked not for long life or riches but for wisdom to help 
others, the Lord answered, 'Lo! I have given thee a wise and an under- 
standing heart.' 

Now it is interesting that this kind of request was unknown among 
even the civilised pagans, such as the Stoics, who in some other respects 
were close to our religious tradition. Cicero, in his De Natura Deorum, 
says it is quite proper to pray to Jupiter for good fortune, since that is 
in the gift of the gods, but he adds that 'no one has ever referred to God 
the acquisition of virtue', since that is in man's own power. So it is, in- 
deed, but man often fails to acquire it nonetheless, and it seems logical 
and natural to ask God for assistance. So Christians have always agreed 
and, even more so than the ancient Hebrews, they have prayed to God 
for holiness, insisting that true holiness is impossible without prayer. 

So we pray for help in improving ourselves. No day is complete 
without a prayer for better conduct: we stand so much in need of it. But 
after this come specific requests for ourselves and for others. These 
cover everything. There is nothing so large-the salvation of the world- 
and nothing so small-the health of a favourite dog or the victory of a 
football team-that is above or beneath personal prayer. When Abraham 
was petitioning God over Sodom, he feared that God would become 
angry after his third or fourth request. But God is never angry in re- 
sponse to prayer, or even 

196 / The Quest for God 

wearisome in the face of exigent requests from those who, however 
rewarded, never return a word of thanks for favours received. God 
does not have these human failings, and the numbers, complexity and 
variety of our requests leave him undismayed. But, of course, he does 
not necessarily grant our prayers immediately or at all. Why? There is 
no fathoming the mysteries of God's bounty. And why does he give us 
some things we ask for but not others? There again, there is no answer. 
The only thing we can be absolutely certain of is that God has good 
reasons for all his decisions. They are all taken with our ultimate in- 
terests in mind, difficult though this maybe for us to perceive at present. 
God, quite literally, knows best, and we must be content with this 
thought. But there is nothing to stop us petitioning. No prayer, however 
reiterated, however banal or commonplace, however self-centred indeed, 
is unwelcome to God. The most selfish prayers, in a way, are the most 
sincere-as Dr Johnson observed, 'No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.' 

I now come to certain aspects of prayer which some non-Catholics 
find particularly irritating or even scandalous. So they are welcome to 
skip this passage. On the other hand, reading it may remove their mis- 
understandings. It is possible to pray not just directly to God, but in 
addition to those near to God in Heaven: the Virgin Mary and the saints. 
We are praying to these once-human, now everlastingly blessed beings 
not because they have power as such, but because they have the oppor- 
tunity to intercede with God on our behalf. Now it may be asked: if 
everyone has a direct line to God, why is it necessary to use these inter- 
mediaries? Or is there a hierarchy of access to God rather like in a 
worldly court, such as the court of Louis XIV as described by Saint-Si- 
mon in his Memoirs ? This set out at length who had the grandes entrees 
or the petites entrees, or whatever, for purposes of putting requests to 
the Roi Soleil personally, as he drew on his shirt or his boots. 

I am not sure that I have a good answer to these questions, other than 
the unsatisfying one that a great many people, more pious and wiser 
than I am, have thought it worth their while to pray in this manner. I 
pray directly to God, and I pray through the saints. Some saints stand 
exceptionally high in God's regard, as is only right-his mother highest 
of all. And some saints 

Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists / 197 

are identified with particular activities. Like millions of other Catholics 
I pray to St Anthony to find me things I have lost or mislaid-that is, to 
intercede with God to make things turn up. I pray to St Christopher 
before a journey, especially if it is long or hazardous. I pray to St George 
for courage and to St Thomas Aquinas and my namesake St Bede for 
wisdom and guidance in thinking out difficult matters. There are all 
kinds of useful saints for ailments, but those I do not bother because I 
am seldom or never ill-though I have prayed, occasionally, to St Blaise, 
who is believed to help cure sore throats. 

It does not matter to me if a saint has been struck off the official cal- 
endar because of doubts about his or her historical existence, like St 
George, because God is not interested in historical facts in this instance, 
but rather the image of holiness which has been created in the minds 
of the faithful by long tradition of pious supplication-that is good 
enough for him. Equally, I do not mind if the persons I pray to have 
never been in the calendar. Thus I sometimes pray to Jane Austen for 
help in literary matters, regarding her as a saintly woman who lived a 
life of exemplary virtue and industry, culminating in a painful death 
borne with stoic courage and faith in Christ-and so well worthy of being 
canonised. And I pray to Dr Johnson too, another good and exemplary 
person, because his problems often seem so similar to my own. Some 
readers may laugh at this. But I do not mind. Many religious practices 
are ridiculous in the eye of the beholder. But they make sense to the 
participant and, if they do, we may be sure they are acceptable to God. 
Dr Johnson himself referred to the case of the writer Christopher Smart, 
who scandalised people by getting on his knees in the street in order 
to pray. Dr Johnson thought this quite all right and would sometimes 
get down alongside him: 'I would as lief pray with Kit Smart as with 
anyone else.' Francis Thompson, another odd fellow, and a Christian 
writer of great power, also did strange things in public and raised eye- 
brows. But no matter; we can be pretty sure that he is in Heaven now. 

We must not despise any aids to prayer if we think we need them. 
Catholics have been criticised for making use of images. This is an old 
argument, which went on among the Ancient Israelites before Christian- 
ity even existed as a faith, and it will go on to the end of time. This is 
surely a matter where there is no 

198 / The Quest for God 

rule valid for all men and women. Few people can now be so ignorant 
as to believe that Catholics, for instance, actually worship the statues 
and holy pictures in their churches and houses. But temperaments vary. 
Some find a statue conducive to holy prayer. Others find it an obstacle, 
even blasphemous. I have numerous holy objects in my study where I 
write my books and articles. I have, for instance, a little cross of mother- 
of-pearl which I bought in Jerusalem when I paid my first visit to the 
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was blessed for me there, and when 
I came home I gave it to my mother, who valued it. On her deathbed 
she returned it to me, with her blessing, and now it hangs near where 
I write. I also have a fine reproduction of a painting by Raphael of the 
Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus, the original of which is in Florence 
and known as La Madonna del Gran' Ducco. It radiates holy serenity and 
simplicity and I am very fond of it: it rests to the left on my typewriter. 

On the right is a very different object, a large eighteenth-century 
crucifix, finely carved in wood and painted, which once stood on the 
refectory wall of a Spanish convent of nuns. It was looted in the Spanish 
Civil War and found its way to England, and I bought it some years 
ago for a modest price in London. It is immensely realistic as to Christ's 
sufferings: some would say gruesome. But that is the Spanish manner 
and I think it right to be reminded forcibly of the sufferings Christ un- 
derwent for our sakes. So I was very pleased to buy it and originally 
intended to hang it in the hall of our London house, to gratify Catholic 
visitors, and administer a salutory shock to Protestant ones and ag- 
nostics. But this my wife Marigold would not allow, for all kinds of 
reasons, including the conclusive one that 'It would frighten the 
grandchildren.' So now it hangs in my study instead, and I see that my 
wife was perfectly correct. This is the right place for it. I kiss Our Lord's 
poor feet, nailed to the cross and bleeding, before I begin my work each 
day, thus acknowledging the debt we owe him, and I can do so in the 
privacy of my study without arousing derision or scandal. As for the 
grandchildren, they are occasionally allowed in to glimpse it, and find 
the experience enjoyable, if not exactly elevating. 

So let us not despise these aids to prayer, be they statues or pictures, 
rosary beads, little crosses or medals to wear round the neck, and all 
the other impedimenta of old-style Christianity. But 

Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists / 199 

equally, let us not criticise those who conscientiously reject such aids 
and preserve complete austerity in the way they address God. I can see 
there is a lot to be said for the stripped-down forms of Christianity, 
where no concessions are made to human frailty and each man or wo- 
man must present themselves alone and unaided in front of the creator 
and pray nakedly. There are some moods in which I feel this may be 
the best and purest form of prayer. I once stayed in a remote Scottish 
Highland community called Applecross, on the far side of a huge range 
of high mountains on the West Coast of Scotland. It is accessible only 
by sea or a perilous mountain road, and the form of Presbyterianism 
practised there is ultra-austere. Even in this small community there are 
different divisions of the Calvinist Church, and separate chapels, and 
each year when Easter approaches, the only time at which Communion 
is taken, the elders of the most austere chapel decide which of the con- 
gregation is worthy to receive it there. If judged unworthy, a man or 
woman must then retreat to the next most austere chapel, and attend 
and take Communion there. I asked what happened if a sinner gradually 
dropped through all the grades and was finally found unworthy to take 
Communion even in the fifth or lowest. My informant scratched his 
head and eventually answered: 'I suppose there would be nothing but 
for him to become a Roman Caathlic.' 

Well, I am a Roman Catholic and I need these things. I like the ancient 
stone crucifixes you find by the wayside in the Celtic fringes of the 
British Isles, and in Brittany and Galicia too, and the wooden ones set 
up high in the Alps and Pyrenees. I like the many special devotions 
which are a feature of ancient churches all over Europe, and especially 
in Rome itself-the scala sancta or holy staircase, which one ascends on 
one's knees, and the like. Pilgrimages appeal to me, and great shrines 
like Lourdes and Lisieux and Fatima, which I once despised as the 
mumbo-jumbo side of Christianity, now seem to me useful and holy. 
I do not share Erasmus's distaste for relics, though I do not have any 
particular devotion to them either, and I can see why they are important 
to some people. I can tolerate, in my old age, all forms of religious de- 
votion or practices which seem to come from God or are acceptable to 
him, or are not obviously fraudulent or superstitious or pagan. I have 
become broad-minded. I see that people 

200 / The Quest for God 

find their own way to worship, and their own aids in praying-so let 
them. But I am less tolerant than I was towards those who, themselves 
without faith or reverence, use the media to sneer at and defile the 
things that others hold dear-the story of the Crucifixion, the image of 
the Mother of God, the life of holy nuns and the simple faith of the poor 
in spirit. I feel myself increasingly militant towards these mockers and 
pollutors, not at all inclined to turn the other cheek. But I may be mis- 
taken. Militancy is often misguided, and prayer is better. When Mother 
Theresa, holiest of living nuns, was monstrously and mendaciously 
abused in a television programme in 1994, she merely remarked that 
she would pray for those who made it. 

Prayer is always an answer even if it is not invariably the complete 
answer. There are countless prayers to be said, accumulated over 
thousands of years during which the Judeo-Christian tradition has 
shaped itself. They exist for all occasions, all temperaments. I have said 
little in this book about mysticism, because I am not a mystic and feel 
no inclination that way, and therefore am ill-equipped to write about 
it. But it occupies a distinctive place in religious experience, especially 
in Christianity, and everyone at some time ought to explore its riches, 
beginning perhaps with St John of the Cross and his pupil, St Teresa. 
You cannot know there is not a mystic in you until you have made the 
attempt to discover it. But the other resources of written prayer and 
sacred devotions are almost limitless and I will not list them. I am con- 
stantly discovering new prayers, often to be found in fusty old books 
and missals and manuals of devotion which have been out of use for 
hundreds of years. 

One should also make use of spontaneous prayer, doing privately 
what the Quakers do so impressively in public. A prayer written by the 
dictates of one's own heart must be especially dear to God. The practice 
of spontaneous prayer is an important one and not difficult to acquire. 
I also try my hand, from time to time, at written prayers. I was led to 
this by reading Dr Johnson's. He composed and wrote down prayers 
all his life, and they have two notable characteristics. First, they are 
humble. There is no vainglorious striving for literary effect in them. On 
the contrary, he was content to follow the liturgical forms. But within 
them he produced evidence of much careful thought, of anxious and 

Talking to the God we do not know and cannot prove exists / 201 

inquiry into his shortcomings, and of great anguish at his apparent in- 
ability to overcome them. In other words, they were true prayers, sent 
directly to God with tearful sincerity, genuine remorse and a huge desire 
to improve-together with grateful acknowledgment of God's many 
mercies. Since I got to know these prayers, I have written a number 
myself, for a variety of occasions, public and private, for my own use 
and for the use of others. I give some examples in an appendix. 

Dr Johnson's prayers are notable for their persistence. That is a salient 
merit of prayer. But another is routine. I have already noted that one 
must not despise the more mechanical sides of religion. They are partic- 
ularly important in prayer. One should habituate oneself to praying 
every day, at certain times. Prayer in the morning is essential, to dedicate 
one's day, and so is prayer in the evening, to review it. There are other 
times when prayers are particularly appropriate: at meals, for instance; 
before beginning a particular task, and when it is finished; before anti- 
cipated pleasures, so that they be innocent or lawful; and after them, 
in gratitude. I like to go to church every morning. It is a habit I acquired 
from my mother, who went to church every day of her adult life, without 
fail, except when prevented by illness or other unavoidable duties. I 
have done it most of my adult life too, even in periods when my faith 
has been feeble or virtually non-existent, and my mode of life particu- 
larly unsatisfactory, as it still is in so many ways. In my case there is no 
particular merit in going to church daily. I like to do so, and miss it 
when it is impossible. 

I have a great fancy for visiting cathedrals if they are nearby. I used 
to go to the Catholic Cathedral of Gibraltar, when I was serving in the 
army, and again to the Catholic Cathedral in Washington DC, when I 
was a visiting professor at a think-tank there. Neither was impressive, 
but both became very holy places for me. When I lived in Paris, in the 
early 1950s, I used to walk to my office in the rue St Georges, and call 
in at Notre-Dame de Lorette, a dark, rather dingy church at the bottom 
of the rue Pigalle, known as the Church of the Prostitutes, and much 
frequented by dancers, strip-tease artists, waitresses and plain whores, 
decently dressed of course and, when attending church in the morning, 
an exemplary type of Christian. When I worked at the New Statesman 
in Lincoln's Inn Fields, I went every morning before work to a 

202 / The Quest for God 

noble classical church on Kingsway, which has a particularly fine rood- 
screen high above the main altar and an atmosphere peculiarly condu- 
cive, I found, to private, silent prayer. Now I go to the church of St Mary 
and the Angels, near my house in Bayswater, a fine nineteenth-century 
church which was for many years the headquarters of the great Cardinal 
Manning, where he kept all his papers. I do not often attend Mass there, 
which is a bit late for me, but I invariably say my morning prayers there, 
kneeling near a statue of St Anne and Our Lady. My mother had a 
particular devotion to St Anne, Our Lady's mother, after whom she 
was named, and I too often pray for the intercession of that gracious 
lady. It is good to go to church, at the beginning of each day, to step 
out of a world full of hurry and perplexity and material problems, into 
the quiet, timeless, tranquillity of a house built for prayer and worship, 
where the values have nothing whatever to do with the world outside. 

In the end, that is what the love and worship of God is all about: to 
turn our minds, and if possible our bodies too, away from earthliness 
to perfection, from doubt to certitude, from the self to goodness, and 
from the flesh to the spirit. This act of turning is something we should 
do every day of our lives, and as often as we can in each day, so that in 
the end it becomes second nature and we cease to need to turn, but be- 
come one with the great spirit in whom alone we find peace and our 


Prayers for various occasions 

Morning prayer 

Almighty and eternal God, I thank you for having created the world, 
for having created me and put me on it, and for giving me family, 
friends and a job to do. I thank you especially for giving all of us the 
gift of free will. 

I am sorry that I have used it to sin against you in thought, word and 
deed, through my own most grievous fault. I am sorry that I have sinned 
against you with my body, my mind and my spirit. 

I am particularly sorry because of the many blessings you have be- 
stowed upon me. You gave me the best of parents, William and Anne, 
to whom I owe everything. You gave me the best of wives. Marigold, 
without whom I would have long since died an ignominious death. 
You gave me a good elder brother, Tom, and two good elder sisters, 
Clare and Elfride, who were kind to me in my youth, and helped me. 

You have given me four good children, Daniel, Cosmo, Luke and 
Sophie, and two good daughters-in-law, Sarah and Cathy, and five 
good grandchildren, Sam, Emily, Tycho, Edith and Leo. 

You have given me good health, which I have often abused, and tal- 
ent, which I hope I have not abused, and the opportunity to exercise it. 
You have enabled me to earn a decent income, and to have two fine 
houses, and a comfortable life for my family, and savings and the ability 
to help others. 

For all these blessings, and for many others, I thank you. I am 
ashamed that I have responded so ungratefully and meanly, with so 
many sins, grievous and petty, repeated so many times, despite so many 
promises of amendment. I beg of you to look not on my 

204 / The Quest for God 

sins but on the faith of your church, and to listen to the prayers of those 
who love me. Please give me the intelligence and wisdom to avoid sin, 
and the occasions of sin, and bless me with the fortitude of mind to put 
all my faults behind me, once and for all. 

Almighty God, grant your assistance in my efforts to make a positive 
contribution to the well-being of others, especially the poor, the sick, 
the friendless and the unhappy. Open my eyes to those who are in need, 
give me wisdom to see how I can best help them, and grant me the 
strength, patience and tact to provide that help today and at all times 
when it is most needed. Teach me to fight the battle against self which 
is the most difficult of all conflicts, and the one most worth winning. 

And, finally Almighty God, grant that this day I may perform some 
act which will be worthy of my better self, which will be of benefit to 
some cause dear to your heart, or help one of your creatures in distress, 
and thus be to your honour and satisfaction. Amen. 

Evening prayer 

Almighty God, at the end of another day you have been pleased to 
grant me, I thank you for all the blessings I have enjoyed during it, and 
I earnestly pray that my own actions, or non-actions, will pass your 
close scrutiny. (Here follows an examination of conscience.) Lord, you see 
that I have sinned. You know that I recognise my sins-they are old 
friends, or rather enemies-and that I deplore them. Please grant me the 
strength not to repeat them yet again. 

Please grant me the blessing of a tranquil night, so that I may arise 
refreshed to do my work in your name, and to perform such services 
as you assign me. And if you should summon me to account during 
the night, extend to me that mercy and forbearance which I do not 
merit but which is in your loving and forgiving nature, so that I may 
join you in your kingdom of truth, justice, love, goodness and beauty. 

Prayer in sickness 

You have thought fit, O Lord, to visit me with this affliction of body. If 
it continue, your will be done. Give me strength and 

Prayers for various occasions / 205 

patience to endure it. Let me offer up any pain and distress for the sake 
of those whose sufferings are much greater than mine. If my pain grows 
worse, may I have the fortitude of mind to submit to your will, in the 
comforting knowledge that you, in your mercy, will not place on me a 
greater burden than I can bear. In your own good time, give me relief 
and restore me to health, so that I may continue to serve you. Or, if it 
be your will to call me to judgment, teach me to compose myself for 
death, to recall my sins and repent them, and to leave this life in faith 
and hope. 

Prayer for sleep 

Lord, I have struggled this day to do your will and to perform the tasks 
which you, in your infinite wisdom, have set me. In your mercy and 
care for us all, grant me now the rest my body requires, that I may rise 
tomorrow morning rested and ready to do your work and mine in the 
day ahead. Spare me uneasy dreams and nightmares, and allow me 
that sweet repose which composes the mind, restores the body and 
makes us eager to do your service. 

Prayer to banish worry 

Gracious and sovereign Lord, who has power over all things, enter my 
mind and calm it. I have thought carefully over the problem which 
faces me. I have considered it in the light of your teaching and of the 
duties and responsibilities you have given me. I have prayed anxiously 
to you for guidance. In the light of all this, I have taken what I honestly 
believe to be the right decision, and done all in my power to make it 
effective. I pray you, O Lord, to reassure me that I have done right and 
then to help me to compose my mind, banish doubts and backward 
glances, and turn afresh to the new tasks which you will set me. 

Prayer for a journey 

Lord, bless this journey I am about to undertake. Grant me speedy and 
safe passage to my destination. May my voyage not be in vain, but in 
your service and for your honour and glory, as well as for my own 
lawful purposes. Let my work on this enterprise be 

206 / The Quest for God 

fruitful. And, when it is completed, let my return to my family and 
home be sure and swift, so that I may render thanks to you from my 
own blessed hearth, among those I love. Amen. 

Prayer on behalf of a dying woman who has nobly en- 
dured great suffering 

Lord Jesus, you who suffered grievously unto death but who never 
lacked the courage to bear it and sanctify it, have pity on your faithful 
servant. Like you she has suffered much and endured much. Like you 
she has borne it all without complaint or recrimination. Like you she 
has shown courage unto death. Help her in her agony, make her final 
moments peaceable and secure, and ease her into her eternal reward. 
Make her endurance and fortitude an example to us all, so that when 
we, too, are called to suffer and to face death, we may do so in the same 
spirit of cheerfulness, and with the same confidence in the mercy and 
love of Almighty God our Father. 

We thank you. Lord Jesus, for showing us, in so exemplary a manner, 
how a Christian soul can turn pain into blessings and a final illness into 
a triumph over adversity. Following in your own footsteps, our dear 
friend, by her steadfastness and magnanimity, has won her victory over 
death itself and so earned her safe passage into your heavenly kingdom. 
We bless you and thank you for this special mercy, and we implore you 
to help us show the same valour when our own time comes. 

Prayer for a friend who has suffered a grievous reverse 

O Lord, have mercy on and pity my friend who has just heard the bad 
news. You know how anxious he was for this blessing. You know how 
hard he worked for it and how he and his family were counting on it. 
Have pity on their disappointment. Give him strength to accept this 
blow to his hopes, let him not be discouraged or despair, but grant him 
the magnanimity to set to work afresh to rebuild his fortunes. And 
please give me the wit and wisdom to comfort him in his dismay, to 
encourage him in his efforts and to render him all practical help in my 
power. Amen. 

Prayers for various occasions / 207 

Prayer to be said by a Princess beset by troubles 

Almighty and eternal God, who rules over all the states and kingdoms 
of the world, have mercy and pity on me, called as I am to serve in a 
high place. Give me guidance and counsel, so that I may do what is 
right, and avoid what is wrong. Give me the strength of purpose, and 
the courage, to follow that wise counsel, even in the face of angry op- 
position and ridicule. Teach me to recognise and discount the foolish 
or vicious advice of those who wish to exploit my position, or to mislead 
me and draw me into evil courses. 

Lord God, give me strength and prudence in educating my children, 
so that they may serve you faithfully in the positions to which you have 
been pleased to call them. Help me to teach them to follow your com- 
mandments, to love our country and to serve it dutifully. Enable me to 
mingle my love for them with a proper regard for their welfare and 
judicious upbringing. Give me the power to persuade them to adopt 
lifelong habits of unselfishness, self-discipline and industry. 

Almighty God, be at my side always to assist me in my perplexities. 
Forgive me my past faults and foolish errors. Help me to devote myself, 
mind, body and soul, with all my strength and with all my talents, to 
the service of your people, and especially to the people of my own 
country, most of all the sick, the unfortunate, the deprived, the fearful, 
the abandoned and the shamed. Be pleased to guide, inform, empower 
and render successful my efforts. 

In your mercy and goodness. Almighty God, give me calmness, 
fortitude, a clear mind and a secure conscience in performing all the 
tasks you set me, so that I may do your bidding to the best of my ability, 
and ultimately deserve to share in your heavenly kingdom, through 
Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. 

A prayer for success 

O Lord, I have many blessings for which to thank you. Now, in your 
goodness and mercy I ask for another. You know what a great store I 
have set on this project. I believe my wishes for its completion are 
worthy and innocent. If it be your will, allow my 

208 / The Quest for God 

hopes to be realised. Let this thing come to pass. When it does so, may 
I refrain from exultation but, with a humble and contrite heart, render 
you grateful thanks for your bounty. Amen. 

A prayer for forgiveness 

Almighty God, I have sinned. You know what I have done. I have 
wronged you and one of your creatures. The wrong I did was wilful. I 
plead in extenuation that I was hasty and did not work out in advance 
the full consequences of my act. But that is no excuse. I am no longer a 
young man. I have experience of these things. The fact is, I was selfish 
and thoughtless. Please God, you see that I am now sorrowful and full 
of remorse. Accept my humble act of contrition. Assist me to make wise 
and tactful restitution. Give me strength to guard against any repetition 
of the offence. And, by forgiving me this sin, encourage me to serve 
you more positively and earnestly in future. Amen. 


abortion 31, 118 

Abraham the Patriarch 12-13, 58, 89, 97, 187, 195 
Adam and Eve 131-2, 178 
Adams, William 160 

Africa: despots in 27; religious conflict in 126 
agnosticism 2-3, 10 
AIDS (disease) 29 
altruism 2 

Ambrose, St, Bishop of Milan 150, 188-92 

animals: rights and duties to 88-92 

Anne, St 202 

Anthony, St 197 

anti-Semitism 128 

Apostles 175-6 

Applecross (community), Scotland 199 

Aquinas, St Thomas 14, 63, 72-3, 96, 197; Summa Theologica 170-1 

Aral Sea 86 

archaeology 12-13 

Aristotle 14, 96 

Arius 191 

Arnold, Matthew: 'Dover Beach' 9-10 
art 70-8 

Ascension, the 175-7 
astrophysics 13 

atheism 2-3, 6-7, 18-19; Marxism as 86 

Augustine, St 108, 188-9 

Austen, Jane 197 

Averroes 96 

Avicenna 96 

Ayer, Sir Alfred J. ('Freddie') 21-2, 38, 141-2 

210 / The Quest for God 

Babbage, Charles 43 
Bacon, Sir Francis 6 
Bardot, Brigitte 182 
Bayle, Pierre: Dictionary 62 
Bea, Cardinal Augustine 128 
beauty 73 

Beauvoir, Simone de 181 

Bede, St 175, 197; Ecclesiastical History of the English People 32 

Beethoven, Ludwig van 170 

Belloc, Hilaire 116 

Benedict XII, Pope 150, 174 

Bennett, Arnold 38 

Bernard of Clairvaux, St 109 

Bible, Holy: Old Testament verification 12-13; representation of God 
in 36-7; women in 57; on animals 89 
Big Bang theory 13, 73 
birth control 19 

Blake, William 86, 179; Auguries of Innocence 103 

Blickling Homilies 176 

Book of Common Prayer 123, 188-9 

'Book of the Dead, The' (Egyptian) 132-3 

Bosch, Hieronymus 158, 178-9 

Boswell, James 7, 139, 160 

Botticelli, Sandro 76 

Brahms, Johannes: German Requiem 123 

Bruckner, Anton 79 

Brunelleschi, Filippo 76, 135 

Burke, Edmund 86 

Byron, George Gordon, 6th Baron 80 

Calvin, Jean 188 
Calvinism 199 
Camus, Albert 181 
Canova, Antonio 135 
capitalism: and environment 85-6 
Carlyle, Thomas 134 

Catholic Catechism (new) 66, 81, 90, 128, 131, 150, 174 

Index / 211 

Ceau escu, Nicolae 25 
celibacy 55-7 
Chesterton, G.K. 80, 89 

Christianity: seen as absurd 18-19; and religious independence 106; 
evangelising 124-7; splits and schisms 127; see also Roman Catholic 

Christopher, St 197 

Church, the: collective nature 103-4; and state 105-6; see also Roman 
Catholic church 
Church attendance 22-3 

Church of England: as state church 105; liturgy and form 123-4 

Churchill, Sir Winston: funeral 135 

Cicero: De Natura Deorum 195 

Clement XIV, Pope: tomb 136 

Clement of Alexandria 108 

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 86; Biographia Literaria 160-1, 164 
Communism: persecution under 14-16; Soviet 24; in South East Asia 
26; collapse 27; and moral relativism 67; see also USSR 
computers 42-3 
Comte, Auguste 21 
Connolly, Cyril 133 
conscience 2-3, 66-7, 69, 110, 169 
Cranmer, Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury 123 
Cuthbert, St 90 
Cyprian, St 174 

Cyrus the Great, King of Persia 105 
Dallas, Texas 125 

Dante Alighieri: on hell 158, 171; The Divine Comedy 53 

Darwin, Charles 8, 11 

Darwinism 3, 8 

David, King of Israel 188 

Dawkins, Richard 18-19, 38, 94 

Day of Judgment see Judgment (Divine) 

Dead Sea Scrolls 101-2 

death: preparation for 7, 11, 32, 162; and afterlife 36; nature of 131-9; 
experiences of 139-42 

222 / The Quest for God 

Dee, John 6 

dialectical materialism 86 

Dickens, Charles: The Old Curiosity Shop 134 

Dickinson, Emily 138 

Dies Irae (poem) 145-7 

divorce 68 

Dreyfus Affair 24 

Eden, Garden of 178 

Edwin, King of Northumbria 32 

Egypt, ancient 10-12, 132, 136, 156, 184-5, 188 

Einstein, Albert 11 

Eisenhower, Dwight D. 35 

Elgar, Sir Edward 165 

Elijah the prophet 175 

Eliot, George 167 

Eliot, T.S. 174 

Emerson, Ralph Waldo 80 

environmentalism 30, 82-7 

Erasmus, Desiderius 199 

eschatology 163 

Eton College 186 

Etty, Sir William 78 

eugenics 117 

euthanasia 31, 118 

evil: human propensity to 1; nature of 54, 60, 61-6; and free will 63, 
132, 160; and Hell 170-1 
existentialism 22 

faith: praying for 185 
Fascism 25 
feminism 49, 51-2 
First World War (1914-18) 23-4 
Fitzgerald, Edward 134 
Flood, the 12 

Florence, Council of (1439) 150 

Fraenger, Wilhelm 178 

France: secularism 24; nuclear testing 88 

Index / 213 

Francis of Assisi, St 90, 92, 146 
Fraser, Simon 137 

free will 47, 54; and evil 63, 132, 160 

funerals 134-5 

Furniss, Revd Joseph 162-3 

Galeazzi-Lisi, Marquess 136 

Gaudium et Spes (document of Second Vatican Council) 131 

gender: principle of 49-52, 58 

Genesis, Book of 8 

genetics 68-9 

George, St 197 

Germany: national production 24 

God: belief in 1-2, 4, 6; human need for 3; persistence and survival 
of 6, 8, 11-12, 17; and human evil 14-15, 61-5, 161; scepticism over 
18; in Bible 36-7; image of 38, 47-8; gender 47-9; and cosmos 94-5; 
personal relationship with 102, 184-5; and Judgment Day 152; 
rejection by 167-8 

good: human desire to do 2; and evil 54, 61, 66 

Gospels, Synoptic: dating of 102 

Greco, Juliette 181 

Greenpeace (organisation) 84, 88 

Gregory I (the Great), Pope 175 

Gregory VII, Pope (Hildebrand) 106 

Haeckel, Ernst Heinrich 20 
Hardy, Thomas 94 
Haydn, Joseph 79, 140 
health politics 30-1 

Heaven 43, 72, 148-51 ; unimaginable nature of 173-5, 178-83; location 

Hebrews see Jews 

Heenan, Cardinal John Carmel 75-6 
Hegel, Friedrich 7-10 
Heidegger, Martin 22, 116 

Hell 43, 63, 148-51; doctrine and depiction of 156-72, 173, 178-9 
Henry VI, King of England 186 
Herbert, Sir Alan P. 38 

224 / The Quest for God 

Hitler, Adolf 15, 25-6, 30, 63, 168 
Ho Chi Minh 26 
Holy Ghost 52, 120 
homosexuality 28-9, 67 
Honorius IV, Pope 138 
Hoxha, Enver 25 
humanism 22-3, 28 
Hume, David 7, 139, 141 
Husserl, Edmund 116 
Huxley, Thomas Henry 8, 12, 20 

iconoclasts 77 

Ignatius of Antioch, St 140-1 
illegitimacy 29 

images see statues and images 
indulgences 154-5 
industrialisation 87 
Infallibility, Papal 19 
Investiture Contest (11th century) 106 
Islam: and state 105; militancy 126-7 
Israel (Biblical) 105 

Jacob, son of Abraham 89 

James I, King of England (James VI of Scotland) 31 
James, Henry 139 

James, Montague Rhodes: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary 164 
Japan: national production 24 
Jerome, St 171, 189 
Jerusalem 157 

Jesus Christ: portrayal in Bible 37-8; non-sexual nature 53; attitude 
to women 59; unconcern for animals 89; and other worlds 100; 
and duty to state 105; as cornerstone 108; authority 114, 119; death 
139-40; on Judgment 148-9, 152-3, 157; Second Coming 149, 151; 
ascent to Heaven 175-7; and psalms 189; and prayer 192-3 
Jews and Judaism: and Nazi 'final solution' 31; nature of God 36-8; 
and women 57; dietary laws 89; as chosen people 108, 129; and 
morality 127-8; relations with Christianity 127-30; lack Day of 

Index / 215 

Judgment 148; and Hell 156-7; and Heaven 175; psalms and prayers 

Job, Book of 62, 65 
John of the Cross, St 200 
John of Damascus, St 192 

John Paul II, Pope: beliefs 16-17; and sex 56; moral absolutism 68, 
113, 118; opens Sistine Chapel to Thatcher 74; The Gospel of Life 
(encyclical) 118 

Johnson, Marigold 41, 107, 198 

Johnson, Paul: A History of Christianity 127; A History of the Jews 127 

Johnson, Samuel 7, 41, 160-1, 196-7, 200-1 

Joyce, James: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 164 

Judgment (Divine) 143-53 

Just War 68 

Justin, St 150 

Kampuchea 31 

Kant, Immanuel: Critique of Pure Reason 7 
Kennedy, John F.: funeral 135 
Khrushchev, Nikita S. 41 

Last Judgment, the see Judgment (Divine) 

Latin America 27, 124-5 
laughter 57-8 
Lazarus, parable of 149 
Leibniz, G. W. 62, 64 
Lenin, V.I. 25-6, 169 

Liberation (and Revolutionary) Theology 27, 124-5 

life (human): sanctity of 117-18 

Liguori, St Alphonsus 161-2, 167 

Lincoln, Abraham 35, 40, 135 

Littre, Maximilien Paul Emile 20 

Liverpool: cathedrals 75-6 

Locke, John 39 

Lockhart, John Gibson: Life of Scott 93 
Longford, Francis Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of 112 
Lorca, Frederico Garcia 80 
Lord's Prayer, The 193 

216 / The Quest for God 
Louis XIV, King of France 196 

love: and gender 50-1; and sex 54-5, 59; and conquest of self 59-60 

Lumen Gentium 109 

Luther, Martin 123, 190; Table Talk 73 

Lutyens, Sir Edwin 75-6 

Luxor, Egypt 10 

Lyons, Second Council of (1274) 150 

McKinley, William 40 

Macmillan, Harold (1st Earl of Stockton) 41 

Magnificat (prayer) 192 

Maimonides, Moses 96; Guide to the Perplexed 129 
Malraux, Andre and Florence (daughter) 181 
Manicheism 61 

Manning, Cardinal Henry Edward 202 

Mantegna, Andrea 176 

Mao Tse-tung 25, 31, 169 

Mari (archaeological site) 12-13 

Martin, John 180 

Marx, Karl 10, 24, 86 

Marxism 8, 10, 27; see also Communism 

Mary, Virgin 48, 52, 116, 192-3, 196 

materialism 23-4 

Matisse, Henri 170 

Mauriac, Francois 181 

Michelangelo Buonarroti 76, 135, 177 

Miles, Jack: God: a Biography 36-7 

Milton, John 74, 80, 86, 174 

miracles 19 

Moleshott, Jacob 20 

Moloch (god) 157 

monotheism 4, 47-8, 97-8 

morality: relative and absolute 67-9, 117-18; and conscience 110; Jews 
and 127-8; see also evil; good 
Moses the lawgiver 97 
music and musicians 78-9, 191-2 
Mussolini, Benito 25 

Index 1 211 

mysticism 200 

Napoleon I (Bonaparte), Emperor of the French 139 

Natural Law 66-7, 69, 110, 126 

Natural Selection 3 

nature: evil in 63-4; respect for 84-7 

Nazism 14-16, 25-6, 67 

Newman, Cardinal John Henry 86, 142, 164-6, 168, 190; Discourses 
to Mixed Congregations 165; The Dream of Gerontius 165, 168 
Newton, Sir Isaac 11, 39 
Nietzsche, Friedrich 9 
nuclear energy 88 
Nuzu (archaeological site) 13 

O'Connell, Daniel 134 
O Calcutta! (stage show) 30 
Origen 63 
original sin 2 

paganism 82, 87-8 
pantheism 44, 84, 87 
parallelism (poetic device) 187 
parish churches (England) 75 
Pascal, Blaise 103; Pensees 94 
patriarchy 47 

Paul, St 32, 40, 66, 130, 131, 140, 173, 175 

Paulinus 32 

Peter, St 139 

Philip Neri, St 90 

Phillips, Melanie 117 

Philo 105 

Picasso, Pablo 170 

Pius XII, Pope: death and funeral 136 

Plato 61, 96 

Poe, Edgar Allan 134 

Poland 16 

Pol Pot 22, 26, 31 

popes: status and powers 115-16 

218 / The Quest for God 
Pound, Ezra 80 

prayer: as solace 183; and speaking to God 184-5; efficacy 186, 194, 
200; and psalms 187-90; in Mass 191; and music 191-2; private and 
public 192-3; composition of 193-5; to Mary and saints 196-7; 
spontaneous 200; practice of 201-2; personal examples 203-8 
pride 171 

Prometheans 18-22 
psalms 187-90, 193 

Purgatory 149-50, 154-6, 161, 168, 171-2 

Quakers 200 

race politics 27, 30 
Rahner, Karl 28 

Ralegh, Sir Walter 6; History of the World 31 
Reade, Winwood: The Martyrdom of Man 19 
Redemptorist Congregation 162-4 
Relativity, General Theory of 11 
relics 199 

Renan, Ernest: Vie de Jesus 9, 20 

resurrection of the dead 19 

Resuscitations (collection) 142 

Revolutionary Theology see Liberation Theology 

Rilke, Rainer Maria 80 

Rimbaud, Arthur 80 

Roman Catholic church: and state 106-7; nature, teachings and 
authority 107-19; liturgy 119-22; evangelising 124-6; and death 

Roman Empire: and Christianity 106; and death 133 

Rome (city) 74; Sistine Chapel 177 

Rossetti, Christina 138-9 

rubbish (waste) 82-3 

Ruskin, John 144-5, 149 

Russell, Bertrand 21-3, 37, 80 

St Paul's Cathedral, London 76 

Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, due de: Memoirs 196 

saints 172, 196-7 

Index / 219 

Sarah, wife of Abraham 58 

Sartre, Jean-Paul 22-3, 80, 167, 181; Huis Clos 167 

Satan 63, 80, 131, 169 

Sayers, Dorothy L. 14 

science: development of 11-14 

Scott, Giles Gilbert 75 

Scott, Sir Walter 93 

Second Coming (of Christ) 149, 151 

self: conquest of 59-60 

Seneca 66 

sex and sexuality: nature of 52-5, 59; and Christian Church 54-7; and 
pleasure 58; and self 59-60; illicit 68 
sexual politics 27-9 

Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of 87 

Shakespeare, William: Hamlet 192; King Lear 173; Othello 53 

Shapiro, Meyer: The Image of the Disappearing Christ 176 

Shaw, George Bernard 23 

Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein 164 

Shelley, Percy Bysshe 2, 80 

Sibelius, Jean 79 

sin: and death 131-2, 172; and judgment 151, 153, 161; remission of 
155; see also original sin 
Sistine Chapel see Rome 
Smart, Christopher 197 
Sodom and Gomorrah 187, 195 
Solomon, King of Israel 195 
soul: definitions of 20 
Spinoza, Benedictus de 44 
Stalin, Josef V. 15, 25-6, 30, 139, 169 
statues and images 197-8 
Stoics 61, 66 

Stoker, Bram: Dracula 164 
Stonyhurst: school 121, 163; Canzionale 189 
suffering: and God's goodness 62 
Swinburne, Algernon Charles 139 

Ten Commandments (Decalogue) 66-7 

220 / The Quest for God 

Teresa of Avila, St 140, 200 
Tertullian 150 

Thatcher, Margaret, Baroness 41, 74 

theocracies 105 

theodicy 62 

Theresa, Mother 200 

Therese of Lisieux, St 140 

Thomas of Celano, St 146 

Thompson, Francis 33, 197 

Tintoretto: The Last Judgment 144-5, 147, 149 

Tolstoy, Count Leo 80, 170 

totalitarianism 25-8 

transubstantiation 19 

Trent, Council of (1563) 150 

Trinity 48 

Tynan, Kenneth 29 

Tyndall, John 20 

Unitarianism 44 

United States of America: church attendance 23; national production 
24; official recognition of God 35; freedom of worship in 105; 
popular religion in 125-6 
Usher, James, Archbishop of Armagh 20 
USSR (Soviet Russia): persecution and atrocities in 14-16, 31; 
Communism in 24; national production 24; devastation of 
environment 85-6; downfall 186 

Vatican Council, Second 5, 109-10, 115, 120, 128, 131 

vegetarianism 91 

Venice: Sta Maria dell' Orto 143-5 

Vogt, Karl 20 

Voltaire, Francois Marie Arouet de 18-19, 26, 80 

Walker, D.P.: The Decline of Hell 159 
Washington, George 39 

Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited 133; The Loved One 133 
Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of 134-5 
Wells, H.G. 20, 23, 38-9, 94; The War of the Worlds 97, 99 

Index / 221 

Wesley, John 190 

Wilberforce, Samuel, Bishop of Oxford 8, 12, 14, 20 
Wilde, Oscar 134 
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 80 

women: nature of 47, 52; and gender of God 48-9; in Bible 57-9; and 
laughter 57-8; and priesthood 57, 59; see also feminism 
Wordsworth, William 75, 86 
Wren, Sir Christopher 76 
writers and authors 79-81 

Xavier, St Francis 190 

Yeats, William Butler 80 
York Minster 155 

Zola, Emile 80 

About the Author 

In this probing, challenging and personal account of his feelings 
about God and religion, Paul Johnson shares with others the strength 
and comfort of his own faith. Informed by his great knowledge of 
history. The Quest for God is written with force, lucidity and eloquence 
by the author of Intellectuals, Modem Times, A History of the Jews and 
other works. 

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